Facility Planning: Sound Design

Aug. 1, 2016
Designing schools for deaf and hearing-impaired learners.

Schools for the deaf and hearing-impaired require special design considerations. As mainstreaming becomes more common and students’ hearing sensitivities are revealed, it makes sense to incorporate these considerations into education facilities. 

Deaf and hearing-impaired children typically do not call upon the same language development and learning skills that hearing children do. These children begin life unable to access universal communication systems. Experts suggest that without early intervention to provide intensive language input and image association, these children are less likely to develop vocabularies or the understanding of sentence structure that transmits meaning to others. 

Deaf and hearing-impaired children need a communication and learning system that is accessible and enables effective social interaction. Without this, they are likely to have limited learning opportunities and be more isolated socially. Research shows that co-locating hearing-impaired services with standard schools (and providing separation when needed) brings about learning and social benefits for all students. 

The design considerations for these schools fall into four categories:

Visual Connectivity 

Deaf and hearing-impaired students prefer to keep others in their field of vision. Create direct visual connections by providing transparency throughout a building’s interior and exterior. Transparent walls, corners, doors and railings reinforce safety and support openness. Intentionally framed views connect the inside to the outside and one space to another, and help maximize way-finding. Incorporate horizontal and vertical views into the design.

Glass elevator doors and shaft windows facilitate easy visual verification of occupancy in emergencies. Minimize columns and physical barriers that obstruct views.


A design should reflect the idea of eye-to-eye contact and personal safety. For instance, blind corners may cause collisions. Replace 90-degree corners with rounded, angled, or transparent corners. Optimize lines of sight and light distribution. Relocate obstacles that create a collision risk, such as columns and posts. Centralized, open circulation connects building areas and creates multiple lines of sight. Consider eliminating corridors so circulation areas may be used as learning spaces. Wide circulation paths with offset areas create learning spaces. Conversely, a narrow path creates a dangerous condition when someone is carrying on a conversation. 

Circulation stairways can obstruct visual connectivity. Ramps are more conducive for orientating the user. Railing systems should use glass panels or open metal mesh. Situate the main entry for easy visibility. Different textures along circulation routes signal the locus of different activities and delineate borders. Crosswalks should be color-coded, textured, and well-organized, with thoughtful orientation to points of interest.

Collective Being

Designing an environment that fosters a sense of community is vital for student success. Eye-to-eye contact steers the design toward a circular, radial, or angled concepts, bringing learners together; in contrast, a linear concept separates. Circular seating arrangements promote eye contact. Space that blends with other areas creates openness and transparency and lets students see others engaged in learning. 

Sense of Home 

The design should evoke a sense of identity and belonging for students. Small learning clusters enable student interaction and closeness and provide a departure from the institutional anonymity of “bells and cells” and “corridors and crates.” Students have more opportunity to interact and collaborate in “family” groupings. Learning communities with a “signature” reinforce students’ identities and a sense of belonging to their learning cluster.

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