Architects’ new strategies
While there are a number of D.C. residences designed for the aging or disabled — complete with grab bars, lower countertops and larger bathrooms — architects employ a different strategy when designing for the deaf or blind.
Because both blind and hard-of-hearing people can learn to navigate their environments with the same physical dexterity as their seeing and hearing counterparts, architects designing for these groups try to create attractive, modern spaces that would appeal to any resident — but which also include “nice-to-have” features for those who can’t rely on sight or sound.
At Justice Park, wider-than-average, well-lit corridors will allow residents to walk and sign side by side without bumping into things. Bright colors inside the apartments will help make signing more visible, while matte paint, rather than glossy, will reduce glare.
With its open floor plans, kitchens will flow into living rooms and out onto a balcony.
“You need to be able to see someone say, ‘Hey, the Redskins just scored!’” said Glen Sutcliffe, a real estate agent with W.C. & A.N. Miller Realtors, who is hard of hearing and works on leasing and marketing for Justice Park.
But not all architects agree with creating separate housing for the blind and disabled, saying the ideal approach would be to introduce the universal design elements into existing buildings where such people already are residing.
“Universal design is a seamless integration of design features in a house to benefit users of all ages and all abilities,” said Laura Montllor, an architect and executive director of homefreehome.org, a Long Island, N.Y.-based group that promotes housing designs to help disabled people live independently. “We should stop thinking of people living with disabilities as individuals living alone. . . . In reality they are living with families and in a community” with people who are not disabled.
Some deaf advocates, though, praised the building’s built-in safety features.
“I know of deaf people who have died because they never heard an audible carbon monoxide alarm,” said Lise Hamlin, director of public policy for the Hearing Loss Association of America. “There is a need for housing that makes considerations for people with hearing loss.”
Although the Americans With Disabilities Act requires landlords to make “reasonable accommodations” for deaf or blind tenants, McConnell and others say getting landlords to provide visual door buzzers, fire alarms and other devices can be a slog. Landlords are sometimes unfamiliar with the law or are reluctant to make changes.