Last year I was in a wheelchair so I wanted to experience something different this year … how about being deaf?
On Thursday, May 5th, 2015, the Americans Institute of Architects of Dallas organized a day of awareness and celebration on the impact the ADA has had on the built environment and the disabled community and I was asked to participate by spending my entire day with no hearing. I’ll admit that heading up to this point I wasn’t too concerned with how my day would go … it had to be easier than spending a day in a wheelchair, right?
Wrong. It was a lot worse. The only similarities between spending the day as a deaf person, or last year’s day as someone in a wheelchair, was that they both opened my eyes to new considerations. I’d like to think that these exercises make me a better architect, but even if they don’t, I fairly confident that they make me a better person.
Last year I received a lot of emails and comments about the time I spent in a wheelchair – most were positive but some where very negative. The negative comments centered around the idea that spending one day in a wheelchair couldn’t begin to open my eyes to the real challenges and hardship truly disabled people go through and as a result, this was a massive waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more with those dissenters but I am a firm believer that everyone is entitled to their opinion and their comments shouldn’t be dismissed summarily out of hand simply because I don’t agree with them. As is so often the case, what if they know something I don’t?
This is the gear that I had to wear in order to successfully simulate being deaf. Ear plugs followed by incredibly (painfully) tight-fitting ear muffs. Once I put my equipment on, I literally couldn’t hear anything.
The first thing that happened to me was this incredible sense of isolation. Despite being surrounded by all the people in my office, I felt like I was alone and excluded from all the activities going on within the office. I could see people talking to one another, but not to me. In fact, other than two instances all day, everybody steered clear of me. I received two handwritten notes in an effort to extract some sort of immediate response … but no other interaction occurred while I was “deaf” and wearing my ear muffs.
I’m not particularly adept at taking selfies so this was the best I could come up with. I wanted to include a picture of myself wearing my equipment but felt like I had to do this by myself – no one else was paying attention to me. So if you wanted to know want the inside of the men’s restroom in our office looks like – here you go. Nothing. No art, white walls … pretty boring.
I found that when I was in the wheelchair, I had physical limitations that made getting from point A to point B very difficult. It was easy to imagine just how put upon people with mobility challenges become when you are in mall trying to get around, trying to find an elevator, realizing for the first time that going down a ramp isn’t always fun – but I could foresee most of these challenges. This day was different and I wasn’t prepared for the challenges of being deaf. I couldn’t communicate effectively and as a result … I cheated. This picture above was a client meeting that was scheduled where we talked about the finishes for a new kitchen. The only thing I learned was that I wasn’t prepared for how difficult me being deaf would be one other people. In the end, I pulled the headphones off and conducted the meeting as I always would.
This was a difficult and depressing day quite honestly.
After spending my day in a wheelchair last year, I made a connection with Thad (Todd) Smith, another Dallas architect, who reached out to tell me that he thought this awareness day put on by the Dallas American Institute of Architects was really terrific, but wanted to know if there were any other disabilities covered besides mobility? Actually, no. The event was called “Wheelchair for a Day” and everyone who participated spent the day in a wheelchair.
As it turns out, Thad (Todd) Smith is deaf and has been since birth. Thad thought it would be interesting to broaden the scope of impairments beyond wheelchairs and include other disabilities. I brought this up to last year’s roundtable discussion and everyone seemed to think this was a good idea so fast forward to this year where the title of the program was changed to “Impaired for a Day” and other disabilities were included.
I don’t think I learned anything that will make me be a better architect. Since I wasn’t actually forced to keep my ear muffs on, when the going got tough, the tough took his ear muffs off. That’s right, I cracked. I hated being deaf so much that I literally couldn’t take it and I cheated. I took two phones calls, I held a meeting, and at one point, I walked outside, took my ear muffs off and went for a walk around the neighborhood. Simulating hearing loss was profoundly disturbing to me – so I needed to find a way to make this experience something of value to other people – so I asked Thad to get involved. I wrote down a few questions as they occurred to me throughout my day and I sent them off to Thad for his response.
Thad is such a positive guy that his answers to my questions are wonderful. Most of my questions originated from something that was causing me great distress and when read what Thad had to say, I don’t know how you can come away with anything but admiration for his attitude. I have included my email correspondence with Thad below without editing …
- I keep saying impairment – is there a better word for this? I know in your email to me you said you were deaf, is it okay for other people to say deaf?
You can use deaf, hearing impaired, or hard of hearing. It does not matter to me. It really depends on the person or their culture. Some deaf would rather be called deaf straight up.
- I am struggling with how effective I think I will be at my job. Do you think being deaf has limited your career as an architect?
I have been blessed with a mother who raised me to overcome all of my obstacles and to believe in myself. My wife has also pushed me to be the best that I can be. On another note, It is about desire to work hard and to focus on the task at hand. Honestly, I do not think it has limited me because I have had the privilege of working in a field that is mainly visual in nature. Email, IM, and FaceTime has eliminated many barriers that the previous generation have had to deal with. Most of all, I have also been privileged to work for people who believed in me. I have also been privileged with working for some of the best in the field and observing how they have overcome their challenges as well. Crandle Davis, Darius Shroff, Hans Schmidt, Jason Patak, Leticia Canon, Anne Mullins, Philip Roath, Dan DeMeyer, Tim Fecker, and Dan Killebrew are a few people who I have in mind are people who have had my best interests in heart. They, among many others have all played a huge role in my career, pushed me to believe in myself, and to move forward. If you surround yourself with people who are capable, their habits will rub off on you and help you succeed, no matter what the obstacles are. Trust in the kindness of people, and you will most certainly succeed.
- I talk a lot and just by blocking out all sound, it has made me retreat inside myself a bit and I’m clearly more reserved. How do you think being deaf has shaped your personality (incredibly big question – feel free to take a pass on this)
It has definitely shaped my personality, but I think in the opposite way. It is a blessing in disguise because I sometimes miss out on verbal cues that may be perceived as negative. I think it has helped me to remain a positive person no matter what is going on around me. I do admit that at times, I can be somewhat reserved, especially at times where I need to focus. I would turn my hearing aids off if I needed to filter out the sound around me especially around deadlines. But as a kid, I was more reserved as a defense mechanism to avoid those who would typically pick on those who are different. But I have learned just to embrace it.
- How do you typically communicate with people at your office?
It depends on the situation – for day-to-day items, I typically communicate with my coworkers through IM, the clients through email and the occasional FaceTime call. For meetings, I will read people’s lips and can generally follow what they are saying. As someone who is severe to profoundly deaf, it can be a challenge. God has certainly blessed me with the ability to be able to communicate with most people. At times, there may be someone with a moustache covering up their lips and I would have them either repeat themselves or just have them email me or IM me.
- What challenges do you face that might not be apparent to those who are not deaf?
Some people sometimes forget that I am deaf because I can talk very clearly. This poses a challenge, especially at a meeting when someone’s back is turned while speaking. I remember a guy I worked with one time, Marty Huie (a colorful/flamboyant character in his own right) would call out anyone who had their back turned while talking. He wanted to make sure that I was getting all the information that I needed for a complex project that we were working on together. It is the little things that can make a huge difference in someone’s life.
- You mentioned in our previous correspondence that you would not change your circumstances as it made you who you are? Can you elaborate?
To someone with hearing, that sounds like an incredible thing to think. Our Heavenly Father made us who we are, why change that? There will come a time when He will make us all perfect, but it is not time yet. There was one time where a guy I worked for did not believe in me, he once referred me as “disabled”, that just lit a fire under me, being deaf is not a disability, it just means that I cannot HEAR – but my brain works just fine (most of the time anyway). People like that are just ignorant and do not understand, I am not angry – I just feel sorry for them.
- Do you think that being deaf has given you insight to designing a space that a hearing person might not consider?
Absolutely, colors can be used to as a visual tone to enhance sign language and visual wayfinding. Visual barriers are very important in designing a space as well. For example, my firm, HDR was involved in designing a space for Gallaudet University and designed circular classrooms. Why? Deaf people are visual by nature and will need the full 360 experience in order to communicate with others from across the classroom. Open stairwells from level to level is one particular example of deaf space design, if you are able to see a person from the level below, you may be able to communicate with them without any visual barriers. Visual connection is VERY important in order for a deaf person to recognize facial expressions, sign language and other cues. Ironically, acoustics are vital as well. Many deaf or hard of hearing people use hearing aids or cochlear implants. These devices are sensitive to reverberation of sound. Designing a space with carpet, acoustical gypsum board for walls, etc. is a basic rule of thumb. I could go on and on, for more information, Google DeafSpace by Gallaudet University, it has some good information regarding design for the deaf community. As a matter of fact, I can bet that Sr. Living architecture firms may be adopting some of these design parameters since many senior citizens are slowly losing their sense of hearing as well.
- What are your thoughts on me spending the day as a deaf person?
I think it is awesome. I am very curious to see how you communicate with others in the office, on the phone, and how you deal with situations. Meetings will be extremely difficult as well (or a general waste of time). I am intrigued, very intrigued.
I did not have the sort of experience I was hoping for, and on one level, I can’t even say I was glad I did this. It was terrible for me and I would not want to do it again. But maybe that’s exactly why it was important for my to actually go through this sort of experience. Learning is an ongoing experience and occurs in increments and milestones. This is not a binary process where you can go from knowing almost nothing and then know everything there is to know in a short amount of time. We all know this … right? I have a long way to go in my efforts to bring any real understanding to deafness as an impairment, but I am one step closer, even if it is a small one.
Thanks to Thad Smith for allowing me to include him in today’s post. I’m quite sure that if you had a question or two that you wanted to ask him, just leave it in the comment section below and he’ll probably get around to responding.