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John Dickinson, AIA: Design for the Deaf and Blind

A hearing-impaired architect designs education facilities for people who experience the world as he does

By Kim A. O’Connell

Deaf people inhabit a highly visual world, says John Dickinson, AIA, one of the nation’s foremost hearing-impaired architects and a longtime proponent of universal design. His work reflects a deep understanding of the acute skills of observation that deaf and hard-of-hearing people acquire in learning to use American Sign Language. These skills make them more conscious of the many subtleties of variation in lighting and visual sightlines, according to Dickinson, so proper lighting and barrier-free design are critical to enhancing the visual means of interaction for hearing-impaired constituencies.

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., to hearing parents, Dickinson became profoundly deaf from spinal meningitis at 2 years old. He had enjoyed art in high school, which led him to enter the architecture program at the University of Kentucky, where he had a full athletic scholarship for track. After working for several architecture and engineering firms over a span of 23 years, in 1997 he visited the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, which badly needed updating. He offered the school his services pro bono, and Dickinson + Partners was born. He worked for another studio, Winter & Company, for several more years before going full-time with Dickinson + Partners in 2010, with offices in New York and Colorado.

He’s worked on many projects for hearing-impaired and special-needs users, but this specific emphasis has not limited business opportunities. “We are very busy,” he says via e-mail. A heavy workload also hasn’t restricted his focus into turning education facilities for the deaf and the blind into ultra-specialized organizations with alien institutional values and arrangements of space either. Much of his work focuses on making facilities for special-needs individuals more homelike and less institutionally foreboding.

LESSON ONE: How to De-Institutionalize Deafness
Ohio School for the Deaf

“Most schools for the deaf and the blind built between the 1800s and 1970s were designed to look like mental hospitals, because they were often under the auspices of the state agencies. My work frequently focuses on de-institutionalizing these places. Externally, the facility should be open and inviting, instead of a boxy institutional space, and should clearly communicate the highly visual nature of the activities inside. The building should establish its own strong visual identity. Inside, excessive brightness, improper lighting, or glare can lead to eye fatigue, difficulty seeing materials or screens, difficulty distinguishing between materials and the background, diminished physical productivity, and unwanted physical discomfort.

“The challenge with the Ohio School for the Deaf, in Columbus, involved three issues: how to plan and design five schools within one school, how to accommodate a variety of educational approaches on the same site, and how to make the school more homelike than institutional.

“The new educational center, for example, is designed to serve all aspects of hearing loss for students. Most students are hard-of-hearing and use both speech and sign language. Students with hearing aids and cochlear implants will appreciate the new building’s strong features that block background noises in adjacent classrooms and improve reverberation. Many schools of this type have one building alone serving one or two grade levels. The Ohio School for the Deaf will have all K–12 classrooms, plus some vocational programs, in one building. Classrooms are oriented in such a way that all of the students can see each other at all times when signing. Natural light and daylighting are also major design factors because deaf and hard-of-hearing students are more sensitive to the visual environment than their hearing peers.”

LESSON TWO: Merging Education and Residential Architecture
Cave Springs Rehabilitation Center

“Cave Springs Rehabilitation Center in Cave Springs, Ga., is designed to meet the needs of transitional students between the age of 18 and 22 years old who are deaf or blind. About 60 percent of deaf students are on federal assistance of some kind, and there are very few training programs for the deaf. This project was fully funded by the federal stimulus bill, and is designed for students who need more training to find jobs and meet other living needs.

“Dickinson + Partners completed a comprehensive master plan for the 40-acre campus and rehabilitation center. I approached the design process by focusing on the Cave Springs stakeholders’ current development program, and making sure it fulfills its desire to transform the existing spaces into [places] that have better circulation, open communication hubs and sightlines, and a sense of place.

“The center was designed and built with the idea that deaf, blind, and other special-needs students can feel they are going to school and going home, without feeling barriers around them. Interventions include wider corridors so students can walk side-by-side and communicate with each other easily, a mountain lodge feeling, including a fireplace in the residence hall, and classrooms designed so that students can see each other at all times when they raise their hands and answer questions.”

LESSON THREE: New Urbanism’s Special-Needs Benefits
Ohio State School for the Blind

“Although rich in history, the existing campus of the Ohio State School for the Blind, also in Columbus, was no longer meeting the educational needs of the community. Our firm was commissioned to design a new K–12 campus on the existing campus. The vision of the new campus was based on New Urbanist principles in a compact setting for the blind community, including mixed-use residential and retail areas, shops along the street, and open spaces. This helps to deinstitutionalize the campus and make it feel more like a traditional neighborhood. Because blind people rely heavily on their hearing, a smaller-scaled living space with less loud commercial development and traffic congestion is more appealing and provides higher quality of life.

“Like the Ohio School for the Deaf project, major programming elements involved creating a new unified campus that included a new campus commons, internal building circulation for blind student safety and control, creation of a family center that provides independent living programs, and expansion of new vocational spaces. In determining possible sites for new buildings, the planning team considered the impact on the blind-school culture and traditions, proximity to associated uses, and impact on campus vistas and landscape.

“The [courtyard] design calls for a landscaped terrace with a sensory garden and decorative fountain adjacent to the common area. The sensory garden is an environment in which students and their families can focus on particular senses—such as feel, sound, and smell—by smelling certain flowers, listening to the water fountain, feeling different building materials. It is a place where blind or low-vision students can completely relax.”


Rendering of the Ohio School for the Deaf in Columbus, designed by Dickinson + Partners. Image courtesy of John Dickinson and SHP Leading Design.

Common room of the Cave Springs Rehabilitation Center in Cave Springs, Ga., designed by Dickinson + Partners. Image courtesy of John Dickinson and SHP Leading Design.

Rendering of the Ohio School for the Blind in Columbus, designed by Dickinson + Partners. Image courtesy of Dickinson + Partners.

John Dickinson, AIA. Image courtesy of Dickinson + Partners.


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