Tempe will become a statewide or even regional hub for folks who use a language all their own — American Sign Language.
A Wisconsin-based company is planning a housing complex for low-income seniors who are deaf, deaf and blind or hard of hearing in what is a new trend for that group of disabled people.
Deaf people were often sent to assisted living centers shortly after retiring, said Judy Leiterman, a manager at Cardinal Capital Management. Most deaf people still enjoyed good health and often lived in isolation because no other patients used their language. That’s triggered a demand for the kind of place planned in Tempe.
“There was a national outcry against doing that to deaf people,” Leiterman said. “Can you imagine they’d be there 30 or 40 years, living that way? That’s so inappropriate.”
The 75-unit apartment complex is planned on Apache Boulevard in Tempe, on the Metro light-rail line. That was important because only about half of deaf people ever drive, Leiterman said. And they give up driving far younger than the general population, usually stopping with even slight vision deterioration.
Cardinal Capital built a similar facility in Wisconsin two years ago, but Leiterman said fewer than 20 exist nationwide. Most are at campuses for the deaf, though most seniors don’t want to live on a campus.
The Tempe project came about only after the Arizona Department of Housing issued the group a tax credit of $9.2 million toward the $12.5 million project. The credit lets the developer subsidize rents and pay for a sometimes counterintuitive list of features needed to accommodate partially deaf seniors.
One extra need would be soundproofing. Some residents need to turn a TV’s volume extremely high, which could disturb a neighbor.
The building would include more floor joists because deaf people are sensitive to vibrations. Also, they stamp their feet to get another person’s attention, and the extra lumber means neighbors wouldn’t be disturbed.
The project would include large windows and bright lighting, so seniors in declining health could easily see their neighbors’ hands as they use sign language. Even colors would be different than most housing. At the Wisconsin facility, dark colors are used on walls where speakers meet in groups so their hands are visible, and walls near doors often feature dark colors so neighbors can communicate when encountering one another.
Hallways are wider than normal so residents can sign without blocking passers-by.
The Wisconsin facility includes video phones so residents can see who is at their door or the front entrance to the building.
The community would include space for social workers and advocacy groups. A staff would also help residents communicate with the hearing world because many deaf people have only read at the fourth-grade level, Leiterman said. Many deaf people were taught their visually-oriented language far more than English, she said, and can struggle to get their points across to a hearing person.
The Wisconsin facility has attracted residents from as far as Florida and has created a community for a group of people who otherwise might become isolated. Word of the Tempe location quickly generated applications.
“The idea of the community is so appealing to them, they’re ready to get in,” Leiterman said.
The company is trying to purchase an adjacent lot to build condos that would be sold at normal market prices.
Land along the Metro lightrail line is selling at a premium as developers snap up lots for pricey condos or offices. Tempe hasn’t seen a developer yet do something on this scale to help a disadvantaged group, said Neil Calfee, the city’s deputy community development manager.
“These guys really understand it and are immersed in it,” Calfee said.
Activists had been working on something like this for 20 years in Arizona, said Cindy Walsh, director of Valley Center for the Deaf.
The company expects to start construction next year and finish in the first half of 2009.