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Your thoughts on designing for disability and other needs
At the tail end of 2021, I shared my Plough piece on design for the disabled, and opened a discussion on the difference between grudging accommodations that make the acommodated feel like a burden versus design that treats everyone as a welcomed guest.
It was a particularly excellent conversation, with a lot of good cross-talk and questions among commenters. It makes me excited for another year of Other Feminisms with this community. Here are some highlights:
First off, Sara Hendren, the author of What Can a Body Do?, kindly turned up in the comment sections to recommend looking into “Visitability Design.” The Visitability movement is focused on holding new construction to accessible standards, namely:
A house is visitable when it meets three basic requirements:
one zero-step entrance.
doors with 32 inches of clear passage space.
one bathroom on the main floor you can get into in a wheelchair.
I really appreciated the site she linked, and I’ll keep an eye on these projects. Our current rental would be very hard for our baby’s great-grandmother to visit, or for my dad to visit in the last half year of his life. It’s not much of a home if you can’t invite your family.
Sara also answered some questions about what this might look like in mid-density housing (e.g. duplexes and triplexes).
I've seen only less elegant solutions—more outdoor chair lifts on triple-decker houses, sometimes a retrofitted ramp to a back patio door, and then an overhaul of the first level for bedroom/bathroom access. So, mobility-wise, it's hard. But from a visitability standpoint of other kinds of support, density is good. I think of my friends, a family of four, who live downstairs from an aging parent, for example, and another friend whose sister and daughters share her space while her mother, with dementia, lives with them but has her own semi-detached "floor" upstairs. And one of my sons has Down syndrome, so I like imagining various creative close-by housing arrangements for him to have support and independence, as he wishes/needs. Plus the benefit of dense mixed zoning, so close-by businesses, public transit, etc.
Martha asked what it meant to consider accessibility as a specifically feminist project. She wrote:
What are the tools and social expectations that specifically exclude 'women' vs exclude predominantly women but also a whole lot of other people too?
It's definitely part of the feminist project to dismantle the idea of a tall white man as the norm. But I'm wary of say, stating that providing childcare at a conference is specifically to accommodate women vs a celebration of all caregivers.
When tools are made too large to accommodate smaller hands, women are more likely to have issues, but of course men with smaller hands will also have that issue. But it's useful to label this as a feminist issue because tools are sized to the median man *because* of sexism, implicit or explicit.
I'm not sure the feminist project can actually sustain itself if it restricts itself to fighting wrongs that specifically exclude women, as opposed to wrongs that are primarily caused by sexism but also affect other groups. Implicit bias hurts men who are perceived to be more "feminine" as well as women. Hostile building designs also hurt men who are on the smaller side of average. A world that is difficult to navigate with small children hurts dads as well as moms. But I guess I would say that this isn't a reason to not lump these in with feminism rather than a reminder that sexism hurts everyone.
I agree it’s important to call out this kind of design as women-excluding (and often the result of women being excluded from the group that makes design decisions) even when not only women are hurt.
I want to call these out as specifically women’s issues, as a way of creating solidarity (even though there are other people to invite in) and as a way of building up a portrait of how our culture disvalues and excludes women.
We need better physical accommodations, but more than that, we need a clearer valuing of women as women, not as short/weak/child-carrying variants on men.