Christopher Laing is an architectural designer, activist, consultant and founder of Signstrokes, whose personal experiences as a deaf person forging a career in architecture inspired him to launch the Deaf Architecture Front, to make a difference for those following in his footsteps.
How did the Deaf Architecture Front come about?
In the UK, of the 1% of qualified architects who identify as disabled, only 0.2% are deaf. One impact of this is that many of our buildings do not take the deaf experience into account in their architecture, resulting in public spaces that are non-inclusive, difficult to navigate and sometimes even dangerous for deaf people.
My lived experience as a deaf person in architecture, and the constant barriers and challenges I faced, led me to realise that the support available was extremely limited. I struggled to source interpreters and access resources, to secure work placements and find role models, to fight for funding – to see and believe that an architectural career might be possible. I founded Deaf Architecture Front to draw attention to and address the barriers that stand in the way of people like me pursuing architectural careers.
A significant catalyst was the Black Lives Matter movement and I also took inspiration from Future Architects Front, a grassroots group founded to end exploitation in the architecture industry, which helped me understand that creating a unifying platform for the deaf community in spatial design was the first, essential step in effecting change – and that I was ideally placed to take it.
The DAF aims to represent anyone and everyone who works in the built environment sector and who identifies as deaf, no matter where they sit on the spectrum of deafness.
What does DAF aim to achieve?
The DAF exists to build a bridge between the deaf community and the architecture industry, to encourage more deaf people into the sector, ensuring that the deaf community has a larger stake in the development of the built environment. This will result in better, more inclusive, accessible buildings that minimise or eliminate the obstacles deaf people often face simply by using a building – issues that often could easily have been resolved if they had been considered at the design stage.
How does it aim to do this?
By improving access to architectural education for the deaf community and providing visible deaf role models, we hope to see more practising deaf architects and built-environment professionals, and in turn, more deaf-friendly spaces and building projects.
We are planning to launch programmes and initiatives designed to break down the barriers to education, including building upon the Signstrokes linguistic project, which creates a British Sign Language (BSL) lexicon for architectural terminology and the built environment to benefit the deaf community in education settings and general architectural practice. This would eliminate the need to explain to individual interpreters afresh each time, and free up headspace to focus on work, and be on an equal footing with hearing people, rather than trying to establish signs on the hoof.
Another area of work for DAF will be providing consultation services to universities and other educational institutions, so that they have a better understanding of how to ensure deaf students get the most out of their education. DAF will work with university disability advisers and offer guidance about how to better support and meet deaf students’ accessibility needs.DAF will work with institutions to ensure sufficient preparation ahead of time, including: deaf awareness training; translation of teaching materials into BSL; booking interpreters and note-takers; and securing a teacher of the deaf.
These provisions will support the smooth running of training and university programmes for deaf students. DAF will work to create a holistic approach, aiming to make deaf students’ experience of architectural education much smoother.
We are also establishing a network of DAF consultants, providing training to deaf people to become consultants who will work with architecture firms and education providers to break down barriers and improve access for deaf people.
What challenges do deaf architects face?
For many deaf people, our first language is BSL, but the architectural industry in the UK is almost entirely dependent on spoken and written English, which presents a fundamental barrier to accessing information in our own language. Deaf people often find it difficult to navigate and access websites, for example.
There are only 1,800 registered qualified BSL interpreters across the whole of the UK, so finding and booking them can be a major challenge. The lack of interpreters and resources is a wider problem than just access to education – the lack of BSL interpretation facilities often prevents or deters deaf people from being involved in public consultations, so projects go ahead without their input.
Aspiring young architects have difficulty accessing work-experience placements, as Access-to-Work support is only applicable to paid positions. This, coupled with the lack of role models, has a negative knock-on effect on the confidence of young deaf people, who feel excluded from the industry.
How can the sector be more inclusive?
More interpreters, an agreed architectural BSL lexicon, and a greater adoption of BSL in academic institutions and workplaces would be hugely influential in making the built environment more inclusive for deaf professionals.
What will the sector gain by having more deaf architects and being more aware of spatial design?
Many of the spatial features of buildings that accommodate deaf people – clear sight lines, rounded corners, visual alarm systems, better lighting – benefit everyone; they’re not ‘concessions’, but enhancements.
The DAF wants to see existing systems redeveloped to include all communities. Inclusion, whether it’s for the deaf community or another group, cannot just be an added extra. We need fundamental change to develop an architecture that recognises, works for, and enriches everyone.
What can the sector do to help deaf people in the communities it serves?
First and foremost: listen to them. The sector needs to do more to ensure the consultation process is accessible to people – for example, some deaf people may not feel comfortable attending large, public events and would rather set up a private group consultation and feedback collectively. Online, there could also be an option to have information all on the same page, in BSL, with links to SignVideo and Signstrokes as a resource.