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Seeing Eye To Eye: Examining How Deaf People Move Through The World

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Robert Sirvage works at Gallaudet University in the Deaf Studies Department and in the Office of Design and Planning.
Rebecca Sheir
Robert Sirvage works at Gallaudet University in the Deaf Studies Department and in the Office of Design and Planning.

When it comes to moving around, many of us rely on our eyes and our ears. As Gallaudet University's Robert Sirvage explains, "Hearing people can hear what's occurring behind them. So deaf people are taking advantage of other cues to what's happening in their space."

Sirvage, who is deaf, holds two positions at Gallaudet: one in the Deaf Studies Department, and the other, in the Office of Design and Planning, where he specializes in deafspace and its research.

"Deafspace" refers to space that's been optimized for use by deaf people, who primarily rely on vision and touch to navigate the world. So, an interior deafspace might feature wider stairs and hallways, plenty of light, and seating areas arranged in circles or semicircles.

But what about an exterior deafspace? Well, that's where Robert Sirvage comes in with his latest research, which he conducted not too far from Gallaudet, on H Street Northeast.

"What I did was have two different groups, each of them in dyads of two, navigating the space," Sirvage says. "One group using sign language, and the other group using spoken English."

Sirvage gave each participant a head-mounted GoPro video camera, which captures a 170-degree span of vision, as compared to a normal camera, which typically captures a 35-degree angle.

He then asked each pair to start talking as they walked down H Street. As they did so, Sirvage would test how often they experienced visual convergence (i.e. how often Person A would have Person B in his/her field of vision, and vice-versa).

The group using spoken English showed far less visual convergence. Because after all, if your language is verbal and auditory, you don't require as much eye contact; someone could be standing behind you, or in front of you, and you'd still hear that person talking. But if your language is more kinetic and visual — relying on hands, faces and bodies, as sign language does — then you need more visual convergence.

Sirvage also noted that even though sign-language pairs maintained a lot of visual convergence, they did not bump into other pedestrians, or lampposts, or other potential obstacles as they moved.

Jamie Hardman, a graduate student at Gallaudet, explains what happened when she participated in a re-enactment of Servige's experiment: "While I was talking, [my conversational partner] was looking at me. And if I moved my eyes in any sense of a way that showed there was a barrier or something, he immediately knew to look ahead and check his environment."

So because of that visual convergence, deaf people are especially attuned to all sorts of cues from their conversational partner. Sirvage says you should never underestimate the power of eye contact — or, as we so often say, "seeing eye to eye."

Pointing at one of the bar graphs in his data, he indicates a pair of red bars.

"You see here that these two right here, with these very small areas of visual convergence? They scored very lowly on that," he says. "In fact, they later divorced! We don't know if it really is predictive...!"

But the main question here is this: how can all of these findings be applied to, say, urban planning? Sirvage has the answer.

"When we think about what's required to build healthy community fabrics, we typically consider community places where people stop and stand or sit," he says. "But that's not true at all! We actually make varying connections as we navigate space. So it's important for us then to consider the fact that we have so many people here in D.C., for example, that commute. And that commute is one point wherein community fabric may be built into that process."

That's why Sirvage advocates for such city elements as wider sidewalks, so deaf people can walk side-by-side... better-lit Metro stations... even more reflective surfaces on buildings so deaf people can, with a glance, see what's happening behind them.

But no matter whether we're talking about buildings, sidewalks, train stations or the street, it's crucial, he says, that the framework of urban planning considers one specific thing: human dignity.

"And what does human dignity mean within that frame? We have to start with that philosophical question," he says. "What does the dignity of the human being mean in that context, and then move on from there."


[Music: "Let's Walk" by Adam Guettel from Light in the Piazza]

Photos: Deaf Space

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