Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Holy Time, Batman!

Review and response:

Hendren, Sara. What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020.

Every day, every person meets and is at odds with the built environment. Thus begins this book from a professor of design who includes accessibility in her classes. The book's several chapters illustrate how everyday construction and attitudes create disabling conditions and offers some examples of how it can be changed. Thus the book presents numerous examples, ranging from lowered picture mounting heights to lecterns to curb cuts and even construction materials.


book cover (text on yellow background)

This narrative reinforces the claim that the essence of the social model of disability is that it is environmental factors, such as infrastructure, and not physical impairments, the functioning of one's eyes or ears, or neurological differences which create what we call disability.

I noted a similar argument in reading Jonathan Mooney’s book Normal Sucks (see “…just a setting on the dryer”). Mooney finds peace with his status, and Hendren reaches further: “disability” is no longer a derisive word, but a proud one, and a reminder of (and also a reminder to) the movement that turned another derisive word into a proud one—Christians. When we better understand the principles behind what we practice, and look at our sources without the encrustations of culture, we can find a new way of doing things. Hendren puts this principle to use by tackling design not as a problem, but as a way to fit function to design. The result is what she refers to as charisma (7-8), an interesting choice: in its origins, χαρις is a divine gift. 

In the face of charisma, far too often, “normal” has exerted tyranny: it seems that we must fit in, listen to the loudest, and conform. No wonder that the apostle Paul also told early Christians not to conform to everyone else’s ideas (Romans 12.2)—and it’s good advice for designers, too, as well as wisdom that reaches beyond religious boundaries. Design the world for all, with all their differences. In the end, no body is average and every body is at war with the built environment. But some are given deficit labels like “weak” while others are socially accepted (do you know anyone who considers eyeglasses to be corrective of disability?)—don’t be conformed.

Resisting normal requires reframing who and what we call the problem. What disabled me were limitations not in myself, but within the environment.

This book is highly recommended for thoughtful consideration about the shape of the world: buildings, streets, institutions, language and descriptions, cultural organizations, centers of power, the layout of rooms, how we move through spaces. It is a use-centered view that asks what users need first. In addition to the obvious physical items that we often think of, the author also considers design for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people—again, a social matter, as we know how to design for all, but often don’t.

This is not only for Christians, but it does call those in churches to think about disability. Religious and non-religious ethical values point to standing firm on one's beliefs that should include kindness and thoughtfulness to all. They also point to self-evaluation, and too many churches have forgotten their original calls to practice justice towards all and service beyond nationality.

Time is included in design. We have come to accept the constraints of an industrialized world where everything is scheduled, a world where one must not only be busy, but be busy at an approved rate. We live by the clock. First developed by those outside the mainstream to mark the rhythms of sacred time, clocks have now become a ruler also, one that disconnects us from the body and the seasons. For one example, why do we tolerate school times that require children to walk or wait in the darkness, being killed or injured, or disrupt everyone’s psyche twice a year for “daylight savings”? 

Time measures one of the prejudices against people with disabilities. Don’t be conformed—the early Christians, among others, distinguished the proper time, xρονος from the time of the clock, καιρος. The ancients still have something to teach us. 

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, with an agreement that I would return it within three weeks. I did this, even though the library no longer levies fines for late returns.