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A collaboration between deaf and disabled artists and interior architecture students

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The limits of current approaches

Metamorphosis - by Rachel Gadsden

Metamorphosis: a work undertaken on site by Rachel Gadsden, by photographing the space through crushed, semi-transparent plastic.

Conventional forms of user consultation with deaf and disabled people on building and public space design – such as via access groups – offer a quite limited model for collaborations between disabled people and designers. This is because deaf and disabled people are often simplistically defined as building users expected to ‘speak for’ - and only about – their disability. What is more, this model is based on deaf and disabled people only being asked to react to existing case-by-case examples, usually as an ‘afterthought’; rather than by being involved in the whole design process or in design philosophies and approaches more generally.

The problem for designers and design students

At the same time, existing assumptions about designers - that they only design ‘for themselves’ – blur the complexity of the design process. This requires designers to develop understandings of, and learn empathy with, a very wide range of different users for each specific building project (without ever being able to know the needs and preferences of all ‘real’ users). Yet, they are usually offered ‘disability’ as a homogeneous category whose ‘problems’ can be met merely with pre-given technical solutions. These are focussed on accessibility (platform lifts, ramps, etc.) and prevent rather than enhance involvement with, or understanding of, the desires and concerns of people with a wide range of life experiences as well as disabilities.

Bringing people together differently

Bringing together deaf and disabled artists with interior architecture students in a collaborative space both enables richer descriptions of material space and disability than traditionally discussed and opens up interpretations of the built environment from different ‘positions’ to creative and constructive review. We hoped this would produce more creative complexity, and therefore deeper levels of understanding so as to enrich design quality, not just for deaf and disabled people but for everyone.

  Next: Why deaf and disabled artists?
Arts Council England University of Brighton, Interior Architecture and Design

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