ADA and The Built Environment

Much of the built environment in America was designed for able-bodied males.  Thankfully the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was put into law in 1990.  That is less than 30 years ago.  Imagine how difficult it was and is for anyone who is not able bodied enough to traverse urban spaces whether it be entering a building or simply leaving a curb to cross the street. Despite the progress made with this act, the ADA falls short of creating environments that accommodate all users.

The specific accommodations I am referring to are those that are for deaf or hard of hearing people.  Most ADA accommodations in the physical and built environment apply to those who are physically and visibly disabled to where they are unable to have the same physical motion as a person who is able bodied.  This leaves people who are kinetically able-bodied, yet still disabled, at a disadvantage.  Consequently, deaf or hard of hearing people are forced to navigate a sensory world where the design caters to those who are capable of hearing.  This serves as a challenge for them as many of the people who belong to the deaf community utilize sight, touch, and spatial awareness to orient themselves.

What does planning for the deaf look like?

There are several keys to planning for the deaf community.  One of them is maximizing sensory reach in public spaces.  When sight is your main tool of observing your surroundings, it is important that your vision is not obstructed or impaired.  Solutions to these issues could appear in the form of making sure that spaces at night are well lit so that deaf people can properly see each other while communicating with one another through American Sign Language (ASL).  Because deaf people use their hands, face, and body to communicate, they need to be able to clearly see with good lighting and minimal physical obstructions.

Two additional keys to planning spaces for deaf people are space and proximity.  Deaf people need space to communicate.  Space is a necessity so that a person may stand at a good enough distance to view the entire message.  This is also important if there are groups of people communicating using ASL.  Space is important so that everyone in the group may be able to remain engaged in the conversation through proper viewing of the person leading the discussion.  An example of how this can be executed is by constructing sidewalks in urban spaces that are wide enough to accommodate groups who are communicating with their bodies.

What’s Good for the Disabled, is Good for Everyone

The built environment must be inclusively designed for everyone who interacts with it.  If we keep people with disabilities in mind, we can successfully accommodate able-bodied hearing people as well.  ADA accommodations are not prone to disadvantaging able-bodied hearing people, so making changes in how we design can only improve our communities.

For more details on planning for the deaf as well as the DeafSpace project by Hansel Bauman of hbhm Architects, visit .


Greg Grant is an Urban Planner from Houston, TX who is interested in planning equitable transportation and environmental solutions for communities.  In his spare time he enjoys cooking and DJing, but not at the same time.



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