George Balsley photo

George Balsley AIA

Project Architect
Kuhn Riddle Architects
Amherst, Massachusetts


A year after graduating from Hartwick College in 1973, George Balsley was feeling indecisive about his future. He decided to take some courses at the Boston Architectural Center (BAC) to gain drafting skills. "One day I made some cutting remarks about 'trashy architecture,' and this other fellow overheard me and challenged me to become a designer myself if I thought I could do better."

"In the 60s and early 70s, there were no federal regulations mandating access for handicapped people. In high school and college, I had no interpreter, and no special help. It was a "dog eat dog world"."
- George Balsley

As far as George knows, he is the only registered architect in New England who is also deaf. He has consulted widely in the specialized field of architecture for people with disabilities, especially the deaf, and has an extensive background in the design of education buildings for deaf people. George has gained a well-deserved reputation as an advocate for the needs and rights of the deaf community in New England. He is keenly interested in design that is appropriate and visually enjoyable to deaf people and works hard to avoid the institutional qualities that often characterize facilities for the deaf.

His own education began at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, which teaches deaf children to lip-read and speak, and forbids the use of sign language ("For that you get expelled lest you infect others!"). He graduated from Clarke in 1965 as a fifteen-year-old and went on to the public high school in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, majoring in American history. "Although I'm a practicing architect, I still read history books for pleasure and I am a fervent fan of the History Channel. Most of their programs are captioned."

"In the 60s and early 70s, there were no federal regulations mandating access for handicapped people. In high school and college, I had no interpreter, and no special help. It was a "dog eat dog world." My only salvation was the kindness of my teachers-and not all of them were kind. Many teachers taught without ever acknowledging my handicap. For extra help, I went up to teachers after class and asked questions, since I functioned well one-on-one. My classmates helped me cue in to what was being discussed in classes. and many took notes for me."

George began his study of architecture at the BAC in 1974 and eventually received his Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1983. He took time off to get married, start a family, and deal with medical problems. In the beginning of his design education, the studio classes were tough, but George was able to keep up because the classes were only six to eight students, and his lip-reading and speaking skills served him well. "In 1974, the ADA wasn't around, even Section 504 hadn't been implemented yet. You managed on your own."

Eventually, with funding assistance from the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, he hired sign language interpreters to aid him in class lectures. "This was a huge blessing! Because of those interpreters, I was able to excel and I got very interested in architecture. I wanted more than a drafting certificate." BAC staff was supportive and encouraging. In 1975, George got his first job as an intern. "I was an office boy for Childs, Bertman and Tseckares on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Peter Smith, the office manager, really made me feel I could succeed in architecture."

George found the BAC placement director effective in locating jobs for him after he finished his degree. In job interviews, George was required to be forthcoming about his disability. "I can't hide it. When I speak it's obvious that I have a speech impediment-I have a "deaf voice" that gives me away quickly." If prospective employers were willing to get used to his speech, George felt he could convince them of his skills and ability to work with a design team. Once beyond the initial resistance, George discovered his deafness to be a minor obstacle. "Today it's so much better with computers, internal and external e-mail, fax machines, and relay services for TTYs, allowing the deaf to talk to hearing people over the phone. They all make the world a different place."

Photograph of a Clarke School building.
This restored 1806 section of a classroom and administration building at the Clarke School for the Deaf was one of George's projects.

Description of Photograph:
This shows a three-story white stucco building with a mansard roof. The windows and roofline have a dark wooden trim. The covered entrance with its small porch is in the middle of the building.

After finishing his degree, George went to work for Tise Architects, in Brookline, Massachusetts, as a project architect. His work there included major renovations to Roosevelt Towers, a 150-unit low-income housing project in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a new 30-unit housing development for the elderly in Weston, Massachusetts; a new 90-unit residential condominium complex; and a major exterior-wall-retrofitting project for a 400-unit apartment complex in Revere Beach, Massachusetts. He also did all the specification work for Tise. During that time, he was appointed to the Housing Task Force of the Department of Mental Health, where his combination of professional and personal experience was invaluable in planning for community housing options for formerly institutionalized people during the phasing down of state institutions.

He finds that working as a deaf architect does have its limitations. Although he has email, fax, and telephone relay service, George usually is not in contact with Kuhn Riddle clients. "Getting along with the clients is probably what keeps them loyal to the office over the years. And I think there is some fear that the clients and I may not 'get along.' I'm not criticizing my office for this- they have been great to me and are understanding of my needs. I think, perhaps, the clients need sensitivity training. Clients are fickle when choosing architects, and our office works hard to please them. However, Smith College, one of our loyal clients, is very willing to work with me. I do quite a bit of work with them and of course with the Clarke School. Smith and Clarke are partners in educating teachers for the deaf."

George has another professional challenge with the national office of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). He feels exasperated by the AIA's refusal to fund an interpreter for him at national meetings, especially since the Boston chapter has no problem accommodating his needs.

A professional plus-his home and family in Hadley are only a 2-mile walk from his workplace. No commuting hassles! And for the future he'd like to do more teaching, "If I get enough support and encouragement I'd like to lead a workshop on design for the deaf at a design conference."

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