D.C. to become the center of Deaf-friendly urban design

*This story was written as an assignment for Georgetown MPS Journalism capstone taught by Carole Feldman of the Associated Press. It was submitted in December 2019.

When quarterback Paul Hubbard discovered that the other team could understand his sign language, he gathered his team mates into a tight circle to explain the play. That was in 1892, and since then the huddle is a staple in almost every group sport. A student at Gallaudet University, the world’s only university for Deaf and hard of hearing students, Hubbard changed the way we play football. Now, Gallaudet is about to change the way both Deaf and hearing people live and work in major urban areas. 

Gallaudet and Bethesda based development firm JBG Smith have recently started phase one of a multi-purpose development incorporating DeafSpace Design, a concept created by architect Hansel Bauman and a group of Gallaudet students that uses meaningful design to benefit Deaf people. This is the first project of this size to use DeafSpace guidelines since they were created in 2005. 

The use of DeafSpace in the development project is an important mark in the design’s history, according to Derrick Behm, a Gallaudet alumni who has been involved with the project from the beginning. 

“Never before have we had the opportunity to lead the development of a neighborhood with Deaf people in the front and center of it all — especially in a city that is rapidly gentrifying, becoming increasingly wealthy, and a global leader politically and economically,” Behm said in an email. After getting his master’s degree in urban and regional planning, Behm went on to teach DeafSpace Methodologies at Gallaudet. 

The project will add 1,000 multifamily units, several Deaf owned and operated businesses, and open green spaces on 6th Street between Union Market and the Gallaudet campus. 

Most buildings in D.C. were designed by hearing architects, and many design concepts that are now popular like open floor plans and video screens instead of door buzzers are beneficial to the Deaf community. 

“Those are concepts that we’re doing in our units already in other projects as well,” said Bryan Moll, Vice President of Development at JBG Smith. “There’s nothing that is considered so challenging that we wouldn’t do it elsewhere. Honestly, it’s good design. It’s common sense.”

The design is one example of what the Deaf community calls “Deaf gain” where simple changes created by and for the Deaf community can benefit the hearing population as well. These changes include wider sidewalks and hallways so that people have the room to sign to each other, more natural light to reduce eye strain from traditional fluorescent lighting, and using different materials to reduce background noise for those that use assistive devices such as hearing aids or cochlear implants.

As part of the Planned Unit Development, JBG Smith is also required to host events for the public and trainings for surrounding businesses on how to interact with the Deaf community. Gallaudet already offers free American Sign Language lessons through its ASLConnect online program and invites the hearing community to see its performing arts programs, join worship services, and engage in social events.  

“At Gallaudet, we’re aware that there is a Deaf world and a hearing world,” signed Robert Weinstock, Manager of Executive Communications at Gallaudet. Weinstock was interviewed with two ASL interpreters. 

“The average person doesn’t see it that way, it’s not an everyday perception. It might not be a barrier, per se, but it’s just there,” he signed. 

Because of this difference, Weinstock says there is a lack of understanding between hearing and Deaf people that goes beyond communicating. 

He was once asked by a radio station to find people to talk about Deaf religion and culture. 

“They were shocked that I couldn’t find hearing people to talk to them,” he signed. “They put it on the air, but Deaf people can’t hear that. They were well meaning, but they didn’t think it through.”

Alyssa Castillo, a junior psychology major at Gallaudet, knows the feeling. She said through email that she has experienced discrimination and misunderstanding at businesses who haven’t employed people who know how to sign.

“There have been some incidents where workers or people will get annoyed if I ask them to repeat themselves. I start to feel bad when they ask me why I didn’t hear them the first time,” she said. “When I explain that I’m Deaf they will treat me like a baby or they will have an attitude with me.”

While the development on 6th Street will be the first time DeafSpace and Deaf ownership will be seen in the District, it will not be the first Deaf-friendly business. In late 2018, Starbucks opened its first U.S. branch with an all signing staff. Castillo says that she enjoys hanging out there because she knows she will be understood. 

“I feel more comfortable going to a business if I know that my communication is more accessible,” she said. 

The new Target in Ivy City, the Chase Bank on Benning Road, and the Apple Store in the Carnegie Library have all consulted Gallaudet on how to make their business more accessible to Deaf clients and they have all employed Deaf people. In March 2020, Mozzeria, a pizza restaurant originally from San Francisco, will open on H Street and will be the first Deaf owned and operated business in D.C.

Even though the H Street Corridor and Union Market neighborhood is adapting to its Deaf patrons, it is the rest of D.C. that people like Brianne Burger worries about the most. 

Burger, who lives in Ward 3, said, “If I want to get a Starbucks, I’m not going to go all the way to Ward 6. I already have at least four or five Starbucks I can go to to get a drink.”

She thinks it’s nice to have a location that stands out but feels bad that other locations were not being recognized for hiring Deaf employees.

Brendan Stern, a professor of American politics at Gallaudet, prefers to go to Peregrine Espresso in Union Market and refuses to go to the signing Starbucks. 

“How different is the signing store, I wonder, from the human zoos of the 19th and 20th centuries where the privileged few would hold public exhibitions of ‘exotic’ humans from a ‘different world’ under the guise of multicultural education?” Stern wrote in a blog post. 

Stern lived in D.C. in the Atlas District for over 10 years and now lives in Frederick, Va. In that time, he has seen a big change in the identity of the H Street Corridor. 

“Starbucks claims they opened the signing store to combat Deaf unemployment, which is a noble goal at first glance, if we consider that, according to the National Deaf Center, only 48% of Deaf people in the United States are employed. Yet, the immediate N.E. area has gone from being 94% black in 1990 to 63% in 2010 while boasting one of the highest black unemployment rates in the country,” he said in a direct message through Twitter.

“Do we really want to take away local employment opportunities from people who do not only need it but also whose families have been in the area for far longer? Breed inter-group competition and resentment, and discourage valuable solidarity within and between marginalized communities?”

But Behm says that it is important to establish a Deaf community and reach the population where it is the most dense. 

“Deaf community and culture, no question, needs a home. There’s strength in numbers and established community,” Behm said.  “I think it is very appropriate to have investments and resources allocated to certain areas to allow culture to thrive.”

NoMa is the fastest developing area in D.C., and this home may not be affordable for the very people it is being built for. 

Newer apartment buildings have newer and nicer amenities and floor plans, and this causes their rents to be higher. Out of all the apartments currently open in NoMa, only three have an average rent below $2,000 per month according to data retrieved from RealPage Inc. These three apartment buildings are also the only apartments in the area built before 1991 when the Fair Housing Amendment Act established new construction guidelines requiring accessible units for people with disabilities. Someone who is Deaf could live in one of these apartments, but they would not be protected by law if they requested an accommodation. If someone that required accommodations to their unit wanted to live in this area, they would have to pay on average $914 more per month than someone who has no accessibility requirements.

In the next three years, the area between Gallaudet campus and Union Market will have 20 new apartment buildings and, if they follow the current trend, will all have luxury-priced units. 

“The Deaf community is becoming more and more outnumbered by hearing people and possibly priced out of our neighborhoods. By 2027 there will be over 10,000 residents in the Union Market district alone, right by Gallaudet University,” Behm said. “Gallaudet University isn’t going to increase its enrollment or change as dramatically as its neighbors. While our numbers may stay the same and our community may continue to thrive in our own way, our presence will become smaller and smaller in proportion. I would hate to see our value to be tied in with our presence and diminish as well.”

Moll says that JBG Smith is planning “a very large diversity of product offerings” from efficient studios to three bedroom units to co-living spaces with shared kitchens and living rooms. Co-living – think college dorm but with a private room and luxury amenities – is rising in popularity in major urban areas as the millennial population increases with little to spend. 

By law, the apartments will also reserve 10% of the units for Affordable Housing. 

“One of the core fundamental ways we’re programming this project is to have units available to people all over the income spectrum,” he said. 

JBG Smith has not yet announced when the first phase of the project will be open to the public, but Moll says it will be at least another four years before the project is complete because of planning applications and construction. 

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