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My Dream House: Some Thoughts on a DeafBlind Space

This blog is republished with permission from the author, John Lee Clark. It was originally published at his blog and the original post can be found here

Since almost everything is built with hearing and sighted people in mind, DeafBlind people routinely come into conflict with features of architecture and design. And I do mean conflict—physical and sometimes painful conflict. So the first principle of DeafBlind Space would be that it has to be safe for feeling bodies. As with any group of human beings living together, certain rules are good to follow. Like: Leave things where they are, or if you use something, put it back when you’re done with it. I’m not going into that here. That rule is great, but it’s by no means foolproof. The other day, for example, my wife opened an upper cabinet in the kitchen to take down some vitamins and was going to put the jar back up and close the cabinet door. Just then I swept in.

So I’d like to focus on some ideas for what my dream house would look like if I could afford to have anything custom-made. The first thing is that it wouldn’t be a house at all. I love skyways and living right in downtown, where I can hop on buses and subways or trains. But that’s just me. I know many DeafBlind people who love living in the country, enjoy farming or gardening, and who even hunt. So let’s forget about whether it’s a house and where it is on the map. What would be inside?

There would need to be a system of vibrating pads or plates as part of the flooring so that signals—for the door, for the tactile ASL phone (which doesn’t exist yet, but I did say anything, didn’t I?), smoke and fire, tornado and storm warning—can reach me anywhere I may be within the premises. Geraldine Lawhorn, in her wonderful memoir On Different Roads mentions an alternative: her use of fans. Neat idea. But it would just be one signal—the fans go off and you feel the air current changing, but what is it? Is it the door? Or the phone? What if I want the windows to be open? That’s why I want vibrations—bz bz bz for the door, buzzzzz for the phone, and so on.

There are devices on the market that provide people with clip-on vibrating pads or wristbands. But that breaks my number-two rule for what DeafBlind Space is: No tools or devices that I have to carry around with me. It may be OK and very smart to use a white cane out there in the public, but if I have to use it at home, then it’s not home. As imperfect as my present home is, my family and I have worked things out so I wouldn’t need to use my cane. This is important. DeafBlind Space means you don’t need to carry anything. It means you can walk around naked, just like everyone does—well, at times.

One more thing about this system: It would be awesome if I could also stomp on the floor and get certain signals relayed to everyone else in my home. Each room could have its signature vibration, and everyone will know that someone is calling from a particular room. This reminds me of a true story: A famous DeafBlind couple, Leonard and Betty Dowdy, now gone to their rest, lived way out there in the waving fields of Kansas. Leonard liked to fix things around the place, and whenever Betty wanted to call him in, she’d open the kitchen window and spray out a rose fragrance. It didn’t always work, or get him in quickly enough. One of these times it wasn’t because he didn’t smell it; it was because he was on the roof. Maybe installing those vibrating pads on the roof would be extreme. DeafBlind Space isn’t meant to cover every imaginable situation, but to get at practical solutions.

One of the things that have caused much grief not just for DeafBlind people but sighted Deaf people is how faucets are designed. Ask any DeafBlind or Deaf person, and she’ll tell you it happened to her before—forgetting that the water was running until she notices the flood. Last year was my worst experience. It was the tub, and the water spilled over and seeped down to my neighbors’ apartments two levels below us. Every time an accident happens, we get super-careful and remember, but then our grip loosens. What I have never understood is why those overflow holes in the tub or in the bathroom sink is never big enough to catch all the water. And kitchen sinks, except in very old houses, never have a high enough ridge around or any overflow holes. There are actually various models available that would help some—foot-pedal, laser-eye automatic, etc. All could be used in the home, as well as various other designs that shouldn’t be too hard to come up with.

Another enemy, one that has broken bone and shed blood, is the door. Closed doors are good doors, and open doors can often be good doors. But doors that are ajar or half-open are bad doors. If a door doesn’t really need to be there, don’t have a door. If there needs to be a door, then it needs to be the kind that can be locked open or otherwise swing shut. I did wonder about sliding doors, but decided against them. Too easy to dislodge, too hard to reset or repair. [Note to everyone who likes to open doors for other people: Don’t do it when you see a blind person. He or she is looking for a closed door, not an open one.]

Cabinets in the kitchen are somewhat different. Cabinet doors are good only when they’re closed. They are bad in every other way. I haven’t tested this, but maybe the best would be to have accordion-style folding panels, which would reduce the size of what juts out. Another approach might be roll-top design or cylindrical doors like the little ones in the fridge where you put butter in. It opens and its back moves inside the space.

Now I’m going to discuss something very particular and perhaps difficult for non-DeafBlind people to fully grasp, so bear with me as I try to explain it. You know the saying “Out of sight, out of mind”? Well, for DeafBlind people everything that’s out of sight remains in the mind’s eye. We can relate to what Gaugin once said: “I shut my eyes in order to see.” This is why DeafBlind vision is often better than eyesight—we know where everything is and see them through walls, through doors, through drawer doors, through anything in front or under or below of them. They aren’t hidden. The bad news is that we also see, or imagine that we see, everything that’s behind the walls, under the fridge, inside the gap between the floor and the bottom of the cabinet under the sink.

DeafBlind people have been accused of being clean freaks. But it’s simply that we are aware of the dirt that’s out of sight, dirt that sighted people would want to wipe out if it was visible. I wash the floor under the fridge every week. I scrub the floor under the oven every week. I wipe clean drawer grooves. I clean places that few sighted people ever think to look. Recently, I went shopping for a new toaster. Feeling the long rows of toasters in various stores, I was aghast. My old one had a bottom flap that you could unlatch and have open out like a trapdoor. All of those new toaster models, every single one of them, had a locked bottom and only this little pan that you pull out to shake out the crumbs. I can promise you that there will be crumbs in there that the pan won’t bring out and that turning the toaster upside down and shaking it won’t get out. I want the flap, because it provides access to thorough cleaning.

This situation gives you a glimpse of how differently a DeafBlind person can view “new” products that are supposedly better. We are alarmed by the massive move to make every single appliance digital, with a flat screen. Smooth flat stovetops are a nightmare. The tactile-friendly knobs and features are fast disappearing from the market. Increasingly, garage and estate sales are the places to go.

In the kitchen, where crumbs are apt to fall and where liquids pursue gravity, I want the lower parts of the kitchen—cabinets, fridge, oven, dishwasher, baseboards—to be redesigned in ways that would accommodate regular and vigorous cleaning. To take the cabinet under the sink as an example, I know that there are unidentified life forms under its bottom and behind the baseboard. I want to annihilate them. At first, I thought of just having no cabinet there at all. Just open space under the sink, just the floor there. But then I remembered that it’s important for my foot to hit the baseboard under the kitchen sink first. Hitting, in the tactile realm, is good. It’s sought-for contact, not conflict.

Many times when I go out in the public someone would try to help me avoid hitting a wall or a ledge, not realizing it was my goal to find these things with my cane. Having my foot making contact with certain parts of my home is similar to this, and I would want my foot to hit the baseboard under the kitchen sink. If there was nothing there, then I’d have to hold out my hand to hit the counter. That would be a drag. In addition to not needing the cane or carrything devices, DeafBlind Space means you don’t need to hold out your hands. It means you don’t get hit in the shins or your vital organs get whammed because there was nothing to greet your foot first. It also means the place is friendly to shoulder-brushing and hip ricocheting, among other natural contact-making movements.

So I would still have the cabinet under the kitchen, and I would still have the baseboard right under its bottom. What I want is for the bottom of the cabinet to open like a car hood. I would, from time to time, take out the dishwasher soap, the box of fresh trash bags, etc., and lift the bottom and clean the floor underneath and wipe out any mental eyesores I find there.

Going off on an important tangent here, about hitting: It’s worth repeating that it’s sought-for contact. Just as sighted people make “eye contact” with objects all the time as they move through space, turning here, pausing there, tuning out until they see a certain landmark, we DeafBlind people want to make contact with our environment. And we do. But a lot of things were never made for such contact. We can, as I have in my home and office, make traditional spaces to some degree contact-proof and -friendly. A constant and very real thorn in the side, though, is the corner.

Corners of all kinds are a threat. American homes and workplaces harbor veritable armies of corners. Wall corners, table corners, partition corners, corners of cabinets, corners of opened drawers, corners of railings . . . Speaking broadly, corners are necessary. I love inside corners. The problem is when an outside corner is square and sharp. In DeafBlind Space, then, all of these would be rounded, all around. Turn a hallway and feel the wall curve around. Lean on a table and feel a convex pressure against your chest. Sit on the corner of the same table, and it’s like sitting on someone’s lap at the knee. Remember that we want to hit everything. It is crucial that what we hit is flat or blunt. Materials like rubber, leather, vinyl, various kinds of firm foam—those should be used liberally, too.

Regarding furniture, it’s amazing what they say about a culture. Take the love seat. The way it’s designed makes a clear picture of two people sitting side by side, looking at something, not each other. An expression of phonocentric culture if there ever was one! A Pro-Tactile love seat would be very different, having the two sitters face each other, thigh against thigh, almost hip to hip. To support three-way or four-way tactile conversations, we’d have a nifty kind of plush chair that can be easily moved around, whose C-shaped backs can at once support the back and an arm. Four of these can be placed, like the petals of a flower, around an upholstered “conversation table.” We also won’t have the traditional big dining table, which moves everyone beyond tactile contact. Instead, food and people would switch places, with people on the inside and food outside. A U-shaped table can be used, so that everyone’s food is either behind them or at their side, but not in the way of tactile conversation. This also makes it much easier to serve food, without trying to move plates and cups through the forest of happy arms and hands. Restaurants hate us because we always screw up their floor plan.

There are many other details, but space for this essay, ironically, is limited. I’d like to share something that may help non-DeafBlind readers gain a more balanced understanding of this topic. Some of the foregoing may have suggested that it must be tough to be DeafBlind and live out there, suffering conflicts with unfriendly and inaccessible spaces. The reality is that we become master navigators and we can be very happy and comfortable with most everything. It’s amazing what the human mind and body, working in kinesthetic harmony, can do. I gained a better understanding of this one morning many years ago. Every morning, I had this routine that included reaching for the knob of a bathroom drawer. My fingers always landed on that knob without my ever looking for it or groping for it. Pure autopilot. On this morning, however, I was made aware of something because, though my hand landed on the knob like always, it did so at a slightly different angle. Thinking about it for a second, I realized that I’d forgotten to put the rug back on the floor after washing it and hanging it to dry the previous day. So the rug had played a role in my daily morning routine, but only a tiny role. If it had a bigger role, maybe I would’ve fumbled around a bit. Instead, its absence from its usual place on the floor hardly changed anything. Indeed, I’ve gone for that knob and hit it while holding a water bottle in one hand, or while consciously avoiding brushing my shoulders against the walls when they had fresh paint on them, or while talking with one of my sons and walking there at the same time.

Often DeafBlind people would be asked, “How did you know?” We often don’t have an explanation. Hundreds of things, thousands of things take part in all of our movements and interactions with this world we all share. That world is our home. We don’t just need DeafBlind Space because there are problems to be solved. Those problems need to be solved, and I’ve offered preliminary ideas. They aren’t especially visionary or based on scientific study but I hope they are suggestive of DeafBlind Space’s potential. We need DeafBlind Space because it’s about power and respect—and learning more about who we are. It’s about ownership, belonging, and making ourselves even more at home.

Read more by John Lee Clark by visiting his blog here

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