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The case for diversity in architecture

By Sofie L J Pelsmakers, on 9 July 2015

wordle 2by Sofie Pelsmakers and Stephen Ware

On June 2nd, the Royal Institute of British architects (RIBA) launched its Role Models project. Stephen and I are two of its 12 ‘Role Models’ and all our stories highlight the increasing diversity within the architecture profession, hopefully inspiring those like us to join us in the profession. Diversity is after all a good thing: not only does it make sense for a profession to reflect the society it operates within (and designs for), furthermore research has shown that diversity is a good thing: organisational diversity “enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving.”

You can read each of our stories which include how we overcame barriers to forge successful careers in architecture.

Unfortunately at the launch event I did not have the chance to meet or speak to all the other role models – there were around 100 people in attendance. But I did manage to speak with Stephen Ware, a Part 2 architect who studied at Kent Institute of Art and Design (now University for the Creative Arts), Greenwich and Westminster Universities and who previously worked at Penoyre and Prasad, Hawkins\Brown and now at Archer Architects and who is profoundly deaf. So when I write that I spoke with him, I mean with the assistance of a BSL interpreter, and Stephen’s mum who was there as his guest.

I didn’t know if Stephen could lip-read or not, but I later learned from Stephen that lip-reading is almost impossible for many deaf people who have never had hearing as there are no clues to lip patterns (Stephen has not had hearing since he was about 18 months old) as also explained here.

Like sign language, architecture is very much a visual language but as a hearing person, I had never given much thought about the significant barriers someone like Stephen might face – not just with what he has achieved professionally but also day-to-day barriers he encounters – though Stephen is super-organised as a result. Unsurprisingly as throughout his studies and working life, Stephen has had to pre-book interpreters (astonishingly, Stephen does not have the right to interpreters unless he is in a permanent job or is self-employed, which can be isolating). Also having to work with so many different interpreters in one year was very problematic. (Did you know that there is not sign language for all architectural jargon? So Stephen and his interpreters had to improvise and develop their own specific signs, but this did not work with continuously changing interpreters). Stephen also pointed out that the majority of buildings are unsafe for him to work alone or stay in unless they have adjusted fire alarms to give out visual warning signs. Similar safety issues apply in public toilets for example. When Stephen mentioned why all our buildings are not designed in this way I immediately agreed with him and I am baffled that we don’t do this already as it seems simple enough and would benefit everyone. This anecdote illustrates both the small changes required to make a building accessible and safe to all, while at the same time highlighting the value of diversity in architecture; indeed it is Stephen’s experiences and insights which challenge our usual practice and shows that we can do differently and better – and from which we can all benefit.

This is why I asked Stephen to expand his story in this post – you can read his full, unedited story here. Stephen’s story is important to share, both to encourage diversity in our profession but also to make all of us aware and support those of us who have a harder time then others; this is best illustrated by Nicholas Kristof’s baseball analogy when he wrote about diversity in US society: I think it’s really hard for people who were born on third base, and whose friends were born on third base, and who assume kind of a third-base context, it’s really hard to understand the enormous obstacles that face those who in early life encountered a much less rosy environment. It’s so easy to hit a home run from third base and say “boy, this is pretty easy, why can’t everyone else do this?”

The RIBA also has three very useful documents aimed at those with disabilities entering or progressing in architecture, drawing – among others – also on Stephen’s story. You can find these ‘Accessing Architecture’ documents here and also the Design Council’s Inclusive Environments here.

You can find more information about UCL’s extensive equality policies and support for students and staff – you can read more here. I also wanted to draw attention to UCL’s Astrea project, to “support the move towards 50/50 leadership and equality for women and men.”

Stephen Ware’s story

I was honoured to be recognised by the RIBA as a role model and to be given this opportunity to write briefly about some of the extraordinary experiences that I have had in pursuit of a career in architecture. The route has been longer and far more difficult than I could ever have imagined, but there is also a positive message about what I have contributed to the profession that I hope inspires others to join me.

I have had to face and will continue to face many barriers and stumbling blocks, in education, job seeking and in the workplace. Therefore, I am in a position to draw attention to areas and issues that I consider need improving and addressing. I consider the architectural profession needs to tap into the unique talents of deaf people. We all use the same space in buildings and want our communities to thrive and everyone can gain from their inclusion, this would really unite the deaf and hearing cultures. Nicola Hughes, an architect, at the Role Model launch said “that because architecture, design and buildings are such visual things then a creative deaf person who has very strong visual perception would surely be a great asset to the profession”. This was very refreshing to hear because I possess this ‘extra’ sense, great spatial awareness and a fast-responding brain – skills we develop to make up for our lack of hearing and skills that are a great asset to the profession.

Studying architecture as a deaf person

Studying architecture is demanding for anyone – but more challenging for deaf students due to the literacy challenges. For example, the reading of books and material when studying, such as for a thesis, tended to take much longer for me than a hearing person because I had never come across many of the architectural words and phrases before and a great number of these did not have a specific sign. Therefore during the course, my interpreter and I had to set up our own ‘dictionary’ of signs, or use finger spelling which was very time consuming. This worked well when I had one or two interpreters, but in one year I had 17 so they had no idea what to do with all these ‘strange’ words they had to interpret. To give you some idea of what this means: I have to learn the meaning of a word and remember it in the context in which it is used and to record each new word, ready to use it again. Likewise with the signs. (Sign Supported English (SSE) is often used with British Sign Language (BSL) to assist with grammatical translation.) This becomes an extra level of education within education and it is mind boggling to say the least because of all the extra work involved.  Hearing students can discuss their ideas and problems easily whereas deaf people cannot overhear conversations to get clues and recall what is said and to question and learn in this way.

Therefore I would strongly advise any deaf student to fully understand the contents of the course and the support available. For example, I discovered that it can be very hit and miss when trying to access the relevant information on some university websites. Choosing the right studio is essential and ideally if the tutors and students receive deaf awareness training, this would promote better understanding, more integration and creativity when everyone is working together.

I also had to organise my own note-takers, but they did not always turn up; at least some of the other students would let me read their notes. Other times I had to wait several days to receive the lecture notes (sometimes illegible), though one note-taker was excellent and typed up the notes. But because of all these problems it felt that I never seemed to have the right things at the right time but I succeeded by being super-organised and becoming a swift, strategic thinker and developing new coping strategies – skills beyond what most hearing students developed. But the continuous pressure and mental stimulation meant that I never stopped concentrating and it was exhausting, impacting on my health and I had to take advantage of one of the dispensations available.

How I managed presentations

My organisation skills also influenced others’ working practices for the better: the tutors said that I had ‘trained’ them to be more organised because of the way I needed to manage my timetable. For example my tutors needed to keep to presentation times as much as possible because I had interpreters booked for these. If these were changed and I had no interpreter then I was excluded from the discussion and unable to contribute fully without support. It was also frustrating as the interpreter’s fees still had to be paid, reducing the amount left in the budget.

How I dealt with alarms

Other practical problems included the installation of flashing alarms instead of typical sound alarms (for smoke / fire detectors, doorbells and carbon monoxide fumes) in my student accommodation on the 18th floor of a tower block with amazing views of the London skyline but I had little peace of mind. The whole building had to be evacuated (using the only staircase) because of someone smoking or burning their toast. (My ‘minder’ alerted me every time there was an evacuation.) But the worst incident was when I was prevented from returning to my room, because someone had pulled off the smoke detector on the 12th floor. This vandalism happened on a Sunday close to midnight and the specialist was unable to attend the premises to reset the controls. Eventually instructions were given over the phone to a member of the support team around 5am. This meant I was at greater risk and I had to sleep on the sofa in reception!

Those experiences lead me to suggest that the appropriate flashing alarms be provided in all public buildings and this is good for all of us: in reality not all deaf people are born deaf but many become deafened because of illness or accident. Considering architects strive to design buildings to such high specifications surely this is an omission that should be addressed? In fact, because these flashing lights are not fitted in most workplaces, I am not permitted to work alone.

A further point regarding safety of deaf people which really concerns me and that is the use of toilets in public buildings. If there was a major incident such as a fire or chemical alert and someone was trying to raise the alarm, shouting or banging on the door to get attention, a deaf person would not fully understand and would be in great danger especially if the cubicle was a ‘sealed unit.’ If there are spaces above or below the door then a quick note could be written and passed into it but people would have to know that a deaf person is in there. The deaf person might think that the person banging on the door is desperate to use the toilet and not that there is a problem outside.

Finding work

When I became unemployed my career was put on hold and I had no funding for interpreters – though fortunately my mother was available to help me with communication for a freelance project I landed during this period. Admittedly, there was a point I felt abandoned by the profession that I had worked so hard to become part of, and that is why I would like to see a comprehensive range of support services provided by the schools of architecture and the RIBA.

During my search for full time employment I came across one of the greatest stumbling blocks, which I shall call ‘constructive discrimination.’ One particular response was quite a blatant example: I was contacted and asked to go for an interview because they had really liked the work shown in my CV and wanted to see me immediately. But when I explained that I would need to book an interpreter because of my deafness and requested a different date for the interview, I never received a response until my parents phoned them and they were told “sorry the position has been filled”. Coincidence? I do not think so – especially as I have more stories like this. This led me to ask myself “am I being judged on my disability and not by my ability and do my qualifications count for nothing”?

I hope that my participation in the RIBA Role Model project will help in some way to make people more aware of the challenges I faced but also the positive contributions people like me have made to the profession and that this will bring about important changes. I also hope my story will dispel the stigma associated with deafness, whereby people are considered as if we are lesser beings and as if we are not equal to those who can hear. We should be welcomed into the profession for our special skills and creativity. Having had to work doubly hard to get good qualifications and against all the odds to pursue a career in architecture, our skills and abilities that come from such perseverance and dedication are clearly an asset to the profession.

Other links:

World Deaf Architects

Benefits of hearing people to communicate without sound and here.

2 Responses to “The case for diversity in architecture”

  • 1
    Sumita Sinha wrote on 14 July 2015:

    Architecture is actually more aural than visual. Good presenters/speakers also get more work- that is true for other professions too. I employed a deaf architect from France for five years- she was also bilingual using lip reading. Site meetings, door bells and telephones were particular problems but I never gave up on employing her due to this. I learnt a lot from her.

  • 2
    Jordan wrote on 30 July 2015:

    Some very important points here. Having a more diverse industry can really benefit industries like architecture. Thanks for sharing your insight here!

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