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Architect draws acclaim (and a $50,000 award) for research into schools for the deaf

Architect Jeffrey Mansfield is a Disability Futures 2020 Fellow. The $50,000 award, funded by the Ford and Mellon foundations, will support his research into how designs for schools for the deaf in the 19th and 20th centuries pathologized their students.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Architect Jeffrey Mansfield was born deaf. It made him look more closely — specifically, at how spaces are designed, and how those designs influence the people who occupy them.

“It makes me see connections,” Mansfield said. “I can identify patterns in spatial landscapes and see relationships between space and power. How space shapes authority and how it can be a form of resistance to authority.”

He’s made a career of researching how architecture can reflect cultural attitudes that disenfranchise the people it is intended to help.

This week, Mansfield, a design director for MASS Design Group, was named a Disability Futures Fellow by the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. He’s one of 20 artists around the country to receive the $50,000 grant, a new initiative and the only national, multidisciplinary prize for creators with disabilities.


“Jeffrey’s a true trailblazer, pushing past the idea of ‘accessibility,’ that architecture must accommodate varied sensory realities, but that it ought to, as he’s said before, imagine, enrich, and celebrate our many ways of being,” said Lane Harwell, a program officer focused on creativity and free expression at the Ford Foundation.

Mansfield, 36, plans to use the award to further his Deaf Space Archive research into how the designs of 19th- and 20th-century schools for the deaf contributed to societal perceptions of deafness as a pathology — and what that did to deaf students. He travels the country, learning stories of deaf education.

“Deaf institutions tended to be designed by the same architects that designed state hospitals for the mentally insane or other state agencies,” Mansfield said over the phone from Texas through a sign language interpreter. “And similar to state hospitals, they were conceived on the periphery of the city, physically and mentally excluded from public consciousness … and outside accepted notions of body and society.”


The Deaf President Now protest movement in 1988 at Gallaudet University, a deaf school in Washington, D.C., was a turning point for deaf empowerment. It reached a boiling point after a hearing person was hired to run the university, and two deaf candidates were bypassed. Protestors ultimately got what they wanted, and Irving King Jordan was appointed the university’s first deaf president.

Since then, Mansfield said, “We’ve seen more spaces designed to include deaf people’s worldview.”

“Disarming Language: The Architecture of Deafness,” an exhibition by Mansfield and artist Christine Sun Kim (another new Disability Futures Fellow) in Estonia earlier this year, contrasted deaf schools designed by hearing architects with those designed by deaf ones, which include innovations in signage, safe spaces, and light.

Out of every 1,000 children born in the US, two to three have detectable hearing loss, according to 2016 statistics published from the National Institutes of Health. Ninety percent are born to hearing parents.

Mansfield said only a small percentage of those parents learn sign language. Without signing, deaf children go unmoored in the crucial first years of language acquisition.

He considers himself lucky.

“My parents were surrounded by community-centered, research-backed resources early,” he said. “They became fluent in sign language. It was my first language.”

He grew up in Arlington and attended the Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham, a pioneer in a bilingual/bicultural approach to teaching.

Today, Mansfield lives in Lawrence. His favorite sideline is hockey. He won two gold medals playing on the USA Men’s Deaflympic Ice Hockey Team.


“I love the physical contact of it,” he said. “It’s one area I’m not viewed for what I can’t do, but for what I can contribute on the ice.”

As a design director at MASS Design Group, he focuses on deaf spaces and is involved in the Restorative Justice Lab, a team that uses design smarts, Mansfield said, “to disrupt the culture of mass incarceration in the US. We want to illuminate the racism and dehumanization that our carceral society unleashes on our communities.”

Prison designs are driven by notions of reform. Historically, so were deaf schools.

“The mission of deaf education focused on reforming people with a specific disability … on reintegrating the deaf into society,” said Mansfield, “instead of seeing deafness for its own cultural uniqueness, full of vibrant insight.”

“It’s a big honor,” he said of the Disability Futures fellowship, which he’ll use to expand his research, laying groundwork for designs that foster deaf children rather than hinder them.

“I realized early on the world was not designed for deaf people,” he said. “So many people are doing incredible work in civil rights and legal advocacy to gain access and equality. But we still need people to design that world, to imagine it, to shape that imagination into reality.”

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.