Barriers Fall, Doors Open for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing People Who Use Sign Language

A brief walk across the Gallaudet University campus in Washington, D.C. tells a visitor something is different about this school. “Gallaudet has a natural, welcoming feeling without all of the language barriers and stumbling blocks common for deaf people,” said Matt Malzkuhn, a Gallaudet University graduate now teaching on campus.

Since its founding in 1864, Gallaudet has focused on bringing high-quality educational opportunities to deaf and hard-of-hearing people who use sign language to communicate. And at Gallaudet, like other universities, research is performed, information exchanged, ideas shared and relationships built.

But at Gallaudet all interaction between students and faculty is done with visual signals, in silence. American Sign Language (ASL) is the heart of communication around Gallaudet, providing deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals who use sign language the opportunity to immerse themselves in learning in a way few other campuses allow.

Sign language is visual and requires each person in a conversation to see the other, so barriers to communication invisible to those who hear plague deaf people. For years, Sorenson companies and the Sorenson family have allied themselves with the deaf and hard-of-hearing community and created technologies and educational opportunities to solve these communication hurdles.

Grants from the Sorenson Legacy Foundation helped build Gallaudet’s newest facility, the Sorenson Language and Communication Center, a pioneering, “visu-centric” building designed for and by deaf people to reflect the “deaf way of being.” For example, the atrium includes three levels of balconies with glass banisters allowing students to see each other and communicate easily. The atrium elevator is enclosed in glass, giving riders an opportunity to continually talk to those outside the elevator while traveling. Public spaces incorporate curved seating areas that organize people so they face each other to talk. All office doors in the center have large glass windows so people can see who is coming down the hall. Faculty and students took the concept of openness further by removing opaque glass in some gathering spaces to further define “deaf space.”

Few organizations are as closely connected with the deaf and hard-of-hearing community who use sign language as Sorenson Communications, originally part of Sorenson Media. Early Sorenson technological breakthroughs in communication include digital compression software and mass-market videophones. Later, Sorenson Media collaborated with Gallaudet to train high-quality ASL interpreters for its national videophone network serving those who use sign language to communicate. Called video relay service (VRS), it allows users with a videophone, a television and a broadband Internet connection to make free calls to any hearing person in the U.S. and its territories. Spun off as a separate company, Sorenson Communication is now the nation’s leading provider of VRS.

Advanced video communication technologies for those who can see but not hear are embedded in the new Sorenson Language and Communications Center. Touch screens produce maps of the center with interactive menus, video conferencing systems are available throughout the building and video production and display equipment is in the center’s atrium. Private VRS booths give students a place to make free phone calls. Innovative architecture promoting communication among people without visual barriers is a design beacon for future facilities. “There isn’t another place like this anywhere,” said Malzkuhn. “Being in a community created for deaf communication opens many more doors for learning and collaborating.”