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"I Listen with My Eyes": Deaf Architecture and Rhetorical Space

"I Listen with My Eyes": Deaf Architecture and Rhetorical Space

Conventional understandings of listening, which tend to focus only on sound and the ears, get necessarily redefined in a deaf context. In Lend Me Your Ear, Brenda Brueggenmann explains, "ASL relies primarily on vision, on seeing the world and language enacted: I listen with my eyes is a phrase deaf people use often" (186). A complex, bodily language like American Sign Language (ASL) relies upon vision, space, bodily movement, and materiality. Interlocutors must develop bodily coordination, an awareness of space and environment, and a sharp sense of timing in order to navigate constantly changing communicative situations. Listening in an ASL context is a highly visual bodily practice.  

As I've been doing more research on ASL, I've discovered that while attention to space (and the bodies and materials within that space) plays a significant role in listening with one's eyes, spaces are often designed specifically for visual listening. For example, in the critically acclaimed PBS documentary Through Deaf Eyes (2007), Carol and Merv Garretson, an elderly signing deaf couple, discuss the beach house they designed for their retirement. Carol explains, "we decided that we wanted to have a house that was open and clear, accessible, and deaf-friendly. What makes it a deaf-friendly house? It has to have a lot of open spaces. It has to let people see each other. Every time somebody rings the door bell the lights flash throughout the house" (Through Deaf Eyes). The footage of this beach house reveals a lot of windows, natural light, and open spaces. There are very few walls. The house is also equipped with the latest deaf technology: video 

communication programs for the computer, closed captioning for TV, different colored lights hooked to sensors (to alert inhabitants when the doorbell rings, or 

when the washing machine is finished with a cycle). The layout is intentionally designed so that Carol and Merv can listen to each other and to their visitors, and the material features of the house (walls, windows, lighting) are also designed in 

order to create optimal visual listening situations.

Deaf space and architecture has become a popular area of research in recent years, particularly in the field of universal design--an architectural concept that emphasizes the production of buildings and spaces that are accessible to both so called "able-bodied" and "disabled" individuals. The driving idea behind this concept is to create inclusive products and environments that can benefit as many people as possible. For example, Gallaudet University's James Lee Sorenson Communications and Language Center was redesigned in 2008 to become more architecturally friendly to its mostly deaf inhabitants. According to journalist Prabha Natarajan, some of the remodeling details include "no right-angled walls or sharp turns, since people can't see or hear people coming around corners. Instead corners are curved" (Natarajan). The windows are also strategically positioned so that there is no glaring sunlight at any point in the day that might prevent inhabitants from seeing clearly. Some additional principles of deaf architecture, according to Scott Rains include:

* Use of partial walls - less than floor-to-ceiling height;

* Placement of windows - locate them so they produce diffused light, not glaring light;

* Use of building materials such as clouded glass instead of brick, concrete, or drywall, to create privacy and still feel open;

* Wooden floors - so banging can be felt from other rooms;

* Select colors on floors as not to confuse a Deaf person's wide vision range;

* Use curved corners instead of right-angled walls or sharp turns;

* Create an open Kitchen to be visually accessible to adjacent rooms;

* Position light switches outside bathroom and bedrooms;

* Implement circular areas to see each other comfortably;

* Create wide, non-white sidewalks outdoors to accommodate people walking and signing to each other, and avoid glare of sunlight.


What I find so remarkable about buildings designed according to the principles of deaf architecture is that these spaces are constructed specifically for and because of visual listeners; they are constructed to create a more efficient environment for ASL and/or deaf communication practices. For this reason, we might call deaf-friendly buildings "rhetorical spaces." As Roxanne Mountford writes, "rhetorical space is the geography of a communicative event, and, like all landscapes, may include both the cultural and material arrangement, whether intended or fortuitous, of space" (42). Clearly, the Garretson's beach house and the Sorensen Center are intended rhetorical spaces. Bodies, spatial and material configurations, and the senses were all taken into account in this kind of design. The attention to the visual and tactile elements in these spaces accommodate particular bodies and communication practices, but there would be no need for such spaces without the existence of those particular bodies and communication practices. This reciprocal relationship between cultural and material needs actually expands the listening abilities, as well as the rhetorical possibilities, of the inhabitants of these spaces.

I'm left wondering what deaf-friendly spaces might illuminate about the relationship between multimodality, bodies, and spaces more broadly. In other words, what might we learn about multimodality by paying attention to how different kinds of bodies shape spaces and vice versa? How does multimodality function differently in different spaces (on or offline, or 2 or 3-D, for instance)? What kinds of knowledge about bodies and space gets ignored or overlooked because we so often take our senses for granted? 



Brueggenmann, Brenda Jo. Lend Me Your Ear. Rhetorical Constructions of Deafness. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1999.

Mountford, Roxanne. "On Gender and Rhetorical Space." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 30.1 (Winter 2001): 41-71.

Natarajan, Prabha. "Gallaudet University Redefines Deaf Classroom Design." October 5, 2007. Washington Business Journal. Retrived April 20, 2011.

Rains, Scott. "Deaf Space: Deaf Culture meets Architecture in UD." April 16, 2011. Rolling Rains Report. Retrieved April 23, 2011.

Through Deaf Eyes. Dir. Diane Garey and Lawrence R. Hott. Perf. Linda Gabriel, Stockard Channing, Ed Chevy. PBS Documentaries. 2007. DVD. 

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