Discover more from Other Feminisms
Accommodations that Emphasize Exclusion
Reviewing two books on disability design + speaking on feminism
This week, I’m discussing accommodations that, while technically enabling access, emphasize how much a space or a tool is not intended for the user being accommodated. This Thursday, I’ll share selections from your comments on doctors who try to soften the loss of death by denying the humanity of the person in danger.
Plough’s last issue of the year is out, themed around disability. One standout essay I’d recommend is Heonju Lee’s “The Baby We Kept.” She tells the story of how her son, Yusang, saved the life of another child, specifically because of his own Down Syndrome.
I have a double book review in the issue, covering What Can a Body Do: How We Meet the Built World (Sara Hendren) and Making Disability Modern: Design Histories (essays edited by Bess Williamson and Elizabeth Guffey). Here’s one of my favorite stories of design from the books:
Hendren, an artist who teaches design for disability at Olin College of Engineering, opens her book with a design challenge she posed to her students: Take Amanda, an art historian who is a Little Person, standing just over four feet tall. In her work as a curator, she travels and gives talks at museums, and she wants a customized lectern that suits her stature. She lays out a full set of design constraints: she wants to be able to carry and set it up by herself, it has to be strong enough to support a laptop, and it has to be robust enough for repeated use.
For a certain kind of designer, Amanda’s request is superfluous. There is already a simpler solution – she can stand on a box. Indeed, many speaking venues keep a box on hand, not for Little People, but for women, as my parish did for women lectors who otherwise wouldn’t quite reach a podium designed with the median man’s height in mind. It was a solution Amanda had repeatedly relied on, and one she decided she was finished with. As Hendren explains, “She wanted to be able to do the speaking her job entailed without a device that required her to enact the repeated awkwardness of bringing her body to the dimensions of a room at odds with her physicality.”
There is a profound gap between adaptive design that is intended to put an atypical or disabled user in the position of the typical user and one that treats her as a guest in her own right, anticipated and welcomed as she is.
This is where I see a great deal of overlap between disability activism and feminism. Women are often taken as the “atypical user”—we are the largest single group to be treated as too far out of the (male) norm to design for.
We rely on assistive devices and habits to become more facile users of tools and social expectations that exclude us. But there’s a heavy cost to pay.
That’s the theme of the remarks I gave at Notre Dame’s deNicola Center for Ethics and Culture’s conference on human dignity. I joined Erika Bachiochi (author of The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision) and Abigail Favale (author of Into the Deep) for a panel on “The Dignity of the Sexed Body: Asymmetry, Equality, and Real Reproductive Justice.” (If you’re looking specifically for me, I come on at 21:26).
It was a pleasure to join these two women for a colloquy, and the audience posed excellent questions. Plus, there were multiple noisy babies in the audience (don’t worry, I am louder) which is exactly right for a discussion of making space for women in the world.
What accommodations have made you more aware that you aren’t welcome in a space by default?
Where have you made accommodations for others (or seen them made) that welcomed them as anticipated guests?
I’ll add as a note of my own that I’ve been really struck by how hostile most homes are to the elderly (and wheelchair users, particularly). As we think about one day (in the indefinite future) buying a home, we’ve been struck by how few homes would make it easy to welcome our own parents as guests as they age.