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The longest ladder to climb

Helen Castle and Anne Cosentino

Deafness is an often forgotten disability. RIBA Role Model Stephen Ware’s determination shows it can be overcome

Stephen Ware’s tenacity has ensured his ambitions are more than a pipe dream.
Stephen Ware’s tenacity has ensured his ambitions are more than a pipe dream. Credit: Pari Naderi

Architecture has a notoriously long career path, requiring five years of higher education and at least two years’ practical experience. It is a rocky road for anyone, but what are your chances of transcending the many barriers barring your way to practice if you have any kind of disability? Could the current inability to provide full access and accommodate diversity be providing unnecessary obstacles to some truly talented individuals? Could that also be harming architecture itself, preventing it from realising its full potential as a profession and a design culture? 

RIBA Role Model Stephen Ware is an exception to the rule. He is one of only a handful of deaf architectural designers practising in the UK; he is aware of only two others. His journey to become a Part 2 Architectural Assistant at Archer Architects in London has been arduous and protracted. Diagnosed as profoundly deaf when he was two, he attended residential school from the age of five, which meant living away from home from Monday to Friday. It is clear, though, that it was a very stimulating environment. He did well in most subjects, ‘especially art, maths and being creative’. As he points out, the dexterity that signing brings means that like other deaf people he was good with his hands, producing 3D patterns and designs for tapestry and woodwork. On Friday evenings when he returned to his family in Rochester, Kent, he joined a local scout troop – a ‘fantastic experience’. He was chosen to attend the World Jamboree in Holland in 1995 and gained his Chief Scouts Award – a standout achievement. Later this, together with the quality of his work, impressed an associate at Penoyre & Prasad Architects enough to win him a Part 1 work placement. At 16, Ware took a BTEC Intermediate GNVQ in engineering at a local college. But it was only when he was 17 that architecture came into the frame. His course leader highlighted his ‘natural skills in technical drawing’ and suggested it as a career. It was a conversation that triggered a passion for architecture. Not having studied for A levels, Ware decided to take the art route to architecture school. He went to KIAD (Kent Institute of Art and Design), where he gained an NDD and a BA in interior architecture and produced some excellent work, before undertaking a second degree at the University of Greenwich and diploma at the University of Westminster. 

  • Surgery and reception area of the Premier Dental Clinic and Lab in Shortlands, Kent, designed by Stephen Ware.
    Surgery and reception area of the Premier Dental Clinic and Lab in Shortlands, Kent, designed by Stephen Ware. Credit: Stephen Ware
  • Ware is part of the Archer Architects design team that remodelled and extended the 1960s Sutton Yard in Clerkenwell, London.
    Ware is part of the Archer Architects design team that remodelled and extended the 1960s Sutton Yard in Clerkenwell, London. Credit: Matt Chisnall, courtesy Archer Architects


Ware adroitly sums up the challenges of higher education for a deaf student: ‘A deaf person’s rate of learning and absorbing new details is not as fast as a hearing person’s, so much more time and support are needed.’ As he emphasises: ‘Sign language is not English, which means English is my second language and my level of literacy is inevitably lower.’ This is, however, offset by his visual awareness and perception, which are much more advanced. His strengths lie in design and creativity as well as his persistent motivation. His aptitude for sustained concentration, expressed in an interest in technical work and research, has proved an asset in practice. He does not get distracted by casual conversation, in turn boosting his literacy. 

Ware’s experience of education varied greatly according to the educational institution. The first university he attended, for instance, was very ‘aware of my needs. I had the same interpreter for three years and some students learnt basic sign language’, enabling him to feel included in what was going on around him. Other bigger universities were not set up for deaf students in the same way and circumstances were exasperated by budgetary constraints. One year, owing to a university trying to source the cheapest interpreters, for instance, he had 17 different interpreters. It was a perennial struggle. 

But it was not just resources that frustrated the education process for Ware. Time management and the casualness of staff were also an issue. If a lecturer cancelled a class last minute, Ware lost his interpreter’s time and funding for that session – learning and presentation opportunities and precious budget were all wasted. Continuity and an established connection between interpreter and signer are crucial for effective communication. Moreover, for Ware to access architectural knowledge the interpreter needs knowledge of terms and jargon. Michael Stewart, one of Ware’s preferred interpreters, was present for our interview. He has worked regularly with Ware for seven years, having known him since 2003, and also works with a mechanical engineer.

Sign language is not English, which means English is my second language and my level of literacy is inevitably lower

Moving ahead

Despite the many obstacles thrown up during his student years, everything was moving in the right direction for Ware by the time he finished his diploma. He had made friends and enjoyed travelling with them abroad (his favourite building is Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, the construction of which he has observed during several visits to Barcelona). He was employed for two years between Parts 1 and 2 with Penoyre & Prasad and then Hawkins\Brown. But on completion of his diploma, the recession hit. Getting a job took five years. Ware applied for around 320 jobs and sent over 480 speculative applications. At times, the discrimination felt blatant, like the occasion he organised an interpreter for an interview and suddenly a vacancy was filled. He kept his cv current with a commission from his dentist to design a new clinic and lab. This helped raise his confidence, and eventually he secured the job at Archer Architects. 

Ware has been there for three years, where he has worked on the remodelling and refurbishment of Sutton Yard in Clerkenwell and Cairo Studios in Shoreditch. He enjoys the everyday challenges of solving design problems, and reconfiguring old and new spaces (interior or exterior) for different uses and putting forward his own ideas to make these unique and long lasting. He has an interpreter for three hours a day, three days a week, funded by Access to Work. The interpreter helps him ‘to exchange and develop design ideas with my colleagues and to talk about materials and to sort out any problems with projects, [and] discuss any new information in connection with the client’s wishes’. Now, having prioritised architecture above all else for so long, Ware is enjoying his social life and seeking a permanent relationship with a view to having a family. His plans for Part 3 are for the moment on hold. 

As an RIBA role model since 2015, Ware has been raising awareness of architecture among the deaf community and helped others navigate this tricky path through education. As part of the RIBA Schools programme that runs hands on, curriculum-linked workshops, he visited Oak Lodge School a school for students with hearing impairments, for instance. For Fiona MacDonald, head of learning, this was important in opening up the opportunity to reach ‘a whole new sector of young people, something we otherwise would have been unable to do’. 

Ware’s deep engagement in his work is not unique to him as a deaf architect. Tayseer Kardash is a highly talented deaf architectural assistant from Sudan, who has just started work at Boyes Rees Architects in Cardiff, having studied her Part 2 at the Welsh School of Architecture there. 

Her mentor, RIBA Role Model and technical director at PAD Architects, Darren Bray, was her lecturer at the University of Portsmouth: ‘My experience of working with and teaching students who are deaf or have any disability, is that they are so passionate about their ambitions and driven by goals in the industry – especially Kardash,’ he says. ‘When she came to tutorials she would push me to get the best out of her. I have never experienced such commitment to striving to constantly improve and review her work.’ 

  • Tayseer Kardash’s section of a sports hall, for which she won the 2013 Dibben Prize  at the University of Portsmouth.
    Tayseer Kardash’s section of a sports hall, for which she won the 2013 Dibben Prize at the University of Portsmouth.

Universal benefits

Despite her deafness, Kardash won the BA1 Chappel Bequest Prize for the best first year student while at Portsmouth. After her hearing was partially restored with an operation, she went on to be awarded the Dibben Prize for the third-year student with the best understanding of construction and materials. 

Bray expands on the significance of access to the profession: ‘I feel that without people from every background in society being involved in designing and improving the built environment, we fall short of achieving the best in public architecture.’

Can even more profound and wide-ranging benefits be reaped from inclusivity? In her inspiring TED Talks, ‘When we design for disability, we all benefit’, Elise Roy, a deaf human rights lawyer and designer, advocates a more far-reaching position. She highlights how designing for disability has produced significant mainstream innovations, like the OXO potato peeler for arthritis suffers and text messaging devised for the deaf. Moreover, Roy espouses a more fundamental shift away from ‘the deficiency mindset of tolerance’ towards recognition that ‘disabilities help you look sideways [as] a force for creativity and innovation’. Certainly, it seems that for both Ware and Kardash their deafness has been accompanied by heightened visual perception, dexterity and an aptitude for concentration that has enhanced their design skills. These are attributes that the most inspired employers, such as Lisa McFarlane of Seven Architects, clearly value. She was so impressed by the passion of a deaf student who came to her practice for work experience that she employed him part-time on completing his course and took classes in British sign language to aid communication. She remains the exception to the rule however. The nature of  Ware’s and Kardash’s disabilities and the architectural system’s inability to always accommodate them has required of them an almost untenable level of doggedness to scale the very long and gruelling ­ladder of education and practice.

Designing for the deaf and hearing impaired

  • Acoustics are obviously important, for example panelled ceilings can help reduce noise levels.
  • Turn off or reduce background noise, as it can be disruptive or painful for someone wearing a hearing aid, causing them to switch it off, putting them at risk.
  • Circular, open spaces are preferred acoustically rather than rectilinear and enclosed spaces.
  • Round tables are preferred by groups of deaf people, so that anyone who is signing can be seen by everyone else. Curved seating is perfect for use in leisure areas of buildings and also in courtyards.
  • For colour and wall finishes muted blues and greens contrast with most skin tones and reduce glare.
  • Good digital signage is important in public buildings both for wayfinding and in the event of any emergency or evacuation, such as a fire, when a building needs to be evacuated. Signage should be well positioned and provide content updates with minimal delay.
  • Glass/transparent doors allow a deaf or hearing impaired person to see someone is knocking or outside the room.
  • Health and safety considerations in public buildings mean smoke alarms for the deaf or hard of hearing should have a high-intensity strobe light, flashing lights or similar when activated by a fire.
  • Avoid glare, shadows, strong direct light and poor artificial lighting; diffused directional lighting is best.  
  • Loop systems are only of negligible help for the profoundly deaf: many designers think that if they install a hearing loop system – a sound system specifically devised for people with hearing aids, which provides a magnetic, wireless signal that is picked up when the aid is set to ‘T’ (Telecoil) – that this addresses their needs. 
  • Mirrors can be strategically placed around buildings to a deaf person to see people approaching from behind.
  • Toilet cubicles should have larger, graphically strong vacant/engaged signage and emergency alarm systems. These should also be used in changing rooms.

For further information, see the DeafSpace Guidelines developed by the DeafSpace Project (DSP) established by Hansel Bauman (hbhm architects) in conjunction with the ASL Deaf Studies Department at Gallaudet University.

Compiled with assistance from Stephen Ware


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