By: Seth Johnson

To design a building for deaf children and blind children, one must first understand the children it serves. Individually, architects Chris Downey and John Dickinson are responsible for designing state-of-the-art structures all over the globe, from Dickinson’s expansive work in the realm of DeafSpace and accessible education facilities to Downey’s involvement in projects like the four-block-long Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco. But it is their distinct lived experience with deafness and blindness that gives them the unique expertise that makes them perfectly suited to design for these children.

Now, in partnership with RATIO Architects and American Structurepoint — both with impressive resumes of their own — the pair of accessibility experts are making history in Indiana, as they work closely with the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ISBVI) and Indiana School for the Deaf (ISD) to reconstruct a new colocation campus on Indy’s northside.

Currently in the preliminary planning stages, ISBVI and ISD will coexist as separate entities on the longstanding grounds of ISBVI off 75th Street and College Avenue. As the team of architects begins laying the groundwork for this historic endeavor, their primary goal is to construct a world-class model for education, purposefully designed to meet the unique needs and develop the unique strengths of deaf children and blind children.

“The design team created several important goals for the project, including protecting the safety of the students, as well as creating one campus with two separate identities on the campus — we can’t forget that,” says Dickinson, an internationally prominent deaf architect. “In order to understand that, we have to understand each of their perspectives. I tell people, ‘It’s not ours — it’s theirs. We’re just here to design their vision and create spaces that embrace DeafSpace and other multisensory elements that distinctly meet their needs and unique way of life .’”

Over the past month, Dickinson, Downey and the rest of the Colocation team have met with students and staff at ISBVI and ISD to fully understand the needs of both student bodies. In doing this, the Colocation team has found that the two schools are approaching this project with mutual care and consideration for each other.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of adjustment to the idea of sharing a campus with a group of students with different needs and opportunities,” says Downey, one of the world’s leading blind architects. “But what’s been most surprising has been the level of collaboration and mutual respect from both sides towards the identities of the students at each school. So it’s been surprising, reassuring and a good harbinger for the whole proposition.”

In these early conversations, the Colocation team has established key pieces of the historic ISBVI campus that will not be altered in the process, such as the clock tower. According to Downey, another important feature of the 60-acre campus is its topography.

“Topography adds to the knowability of the site,” Downey says. “You can recognize where you are based on topography and slopes, and it helps build in some transitions on campus. If it’s all flat, it’s at risk of all feeling the same. Having this topographic difference across the site really breaks down what could be a large, overwhelming campus into three knowable zones.”

While maintaining the campus’ natural beauty, however, the Colocation team also sees this project as an opportunity to make the grounds even more accessible than they already are.

“The high school students we spoke with want more opportunities to be outside, and I feel that myself,” Downey says. “That dynamic exterior environment is so key. It’s just a beautiful site, and we’re going to try to leverage that and improve upon it.”

In reflecting on the unique task they’re faced with, Downey believes this Colocation team can set a standard for how project such as this are handled going forward.

“There’s really a wonderful opportunity and the team has a commitment to setting the standard for best practices in a context that actually elevates the experience for both [the deaf and visually impaired],” Downey says. “It’s a great opportunity, and I think we have a great team to do that.”

And while the task at hand may seem rather daunting, both Dickinson and Downey say ISBVI and ISD have already been great to work with.

“Any project requires great clients, and we feel that with the leadership of these schools,” Downey says. “So all the pieces are there for a truly wonderful demonstration.”

Stay tuned to IBCF’s social media channels for more information on the next Colocation Town Hall Meeting.





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