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News / Clark County News

Work at Washington School for Deaf in Vancouver celebrates identity

Construction project uses DeafSpace principles to make buildings ideal for students’ needs

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: March 26, 2024, 7:33pm
11 Photos
Interpreter Daniel Mroz, from left, signs Skanska project executive Alan Halleck words for Washington State Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth Executive Director Shauna Bilyeu and others Tuesday at the Washington School for the Deaf in Vancouver.
Interpreter Daniel Mroz, from left, signs Skanska project executive Alan Halleck words for Washington State Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth Executive Director Shauna Bilyeu and others Tuesday at the Washington School for the Deaf in Vancouver. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Outside the Washington School for the Deaf, those who are deaf and hard of hearing are a minority. But inside the Vancouver campus, they are the majority.

So when the Legislature approved $49 million in the state’s capital budget for construction projects at the school at 611 Grand Blvd., it was important to Superintendent Shauna Bilyeu that the new space center around Deaf experiences.

“We want an environment that celebrates Deaf identity,” Bilyeu said. “Many of them come from a disadvantaged place. This is home. It is a place of warmth and heart, and it was important for me that it also reflects the Pacific Northwest.”

The school is working with the construction company Skanska and the design company Mithun to incorporate DeafSpace principles into the design of new buildings. That means making it easier for deaf people to learn and teach through architecture and design.

Light switches will be next to teachers to get their students’ attention. The grand hall has large low-glare windows to let in light without causing eye strain. Corners are made of glass so people don’t bump into each other.

Stairs are wide and gradual to allow people to continue conversations in American Sign Language, which typically requires 6 feet between the people talking, Bilyeu said.

The material used for playground equipment won’t shock kids, which could damage hearing aids, according to JoAnn Hindmarsh Wilcox, a Mithun partner.

Bilyeu wanted mass timber to be used instead of steel to remind students of the Pacific Northwest. Bilyeu’s family owns a timber farm in Oregon, she said.

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“I grew up appreciating the beauty of timber and the warmth it provides,” Bilyeu said.

The wood also carries vibrations well, she said, which is especially important for deaf people to communicate. They stomp or tap walls to get each other’s attention, Bilyeu said.

The school’s seventh- through 12th-grade building is not an ideal learning environment for deaf students, she said. The building has many twists and turns with low ceilings and low lighting levels.

“Why we are so obsessed with windows and light is because we had none. It’s not good for deaf education at all,” she said.

However, preserving the history and culture of the campus, which was founded in 1889, is important to staff, Bilyeu said. The architects are incorporating some of the old buildings’ materials into the new construction, such as the beams from an older structure on campus built by one of the nation’s first deaf architects, Bilyeu said.

“In a lot of states, schools for the Deaf are struggling. I feel lucky,” Bilyeu said.

She hopes the space will be a calming environment for the students, many of whom live on campus away from home for part of the week.

The public is invited to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new buildings Sept. 12 at the campus.

“Where you work needs to be a reflection of how you feel,” Bilyeu said. “It’s going to raise the morale of the students and the teachers.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct amount of funding the Legislature approved for the Washington School for the Deaf.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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