Tag Archives: universal design

Everyday Things: Are They Designed For You, or Against You?

Laurie and Debbie say:

Kat Ely at medium.com has a comprehensive and thoughtful piece on gendered design, “The World Is Designed for Men.”

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Ely concentrates on four areas:

  1. Seat belts: “Female drivers are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash.”
  2. Medication: very important, but not an industrial design issue.
  3. Office temperature: “the algorithms that dictate temperature regulation in many modern office buildings were designed in the 1960s for a 154-pound male” (Everyone does better work when they’re more physically comfortable.)
  4. Tools: “The sawzall pictured above left looks comfortable for the man to use but when I hold the same tool it’s far less ergonomic.”

Ely has a lot to say about the demographics that lead to a world designed by men, and what a world designed by women might look like. She’s clear that she doesn’t want a world designed for women:

Flip the situation — if cars were designed with only smaller framed women in mind, we’d find ourselves in an equally problematic situation. It seems immediately absurd when the roles are reversed, but we seldom question the disparity in design when it’s the status quo.

Where she’s going is toward what the disability community calls “universal (or inclusive) design,” the benefit of designing for the extremes:

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OXO products (pictured above), for example, are kitchen gadgets designed specifically to be comfortable for people with arthritis who have difficulty gripping traditional kitchen tools.

Oxo’s general popularity is hardly the only example. Ely gives several more, including one we all use every day:

1973: Vint Cerf, who is hard of hearing, develops email, in part because it’s an easy way to communicate with his wife, who is deaf.

Reading this article made us both think about what it means to live in a world designed for someone who isn’t you. All children, by definition, are living in a world not designed for them.

But when child grows up to be an able-bodied person within an average male size range, everything starts to fit. Most likely, that child will take it for granted, in an “I always knew I would grow into things fitting” sort of way. If they grow up into a world that doesn’t fit, whether or not they take it for granted, they will adapt to it. They will become accustomed to what they can’t reach, can’t hold, can’t maneuver or handle. They will learn accommodations and work-arounds, or give up on things they might otherwise have done because the bar is too high.

And, consciously or unconsciously, they will internalize the ways things don’t fit as about them, not about the world. The gap between “my hands are too small” and “this drill is too large” is difficult to bridge. Especially if you are socialized as a woman, socialized to do emotional labor, socialized to accommodate, make peace, find compromises, you will internalize a belief that the tools and office temperature are “just something I live with” and that disastrous auto accident was about your driving, not about how cars are made.

When the whole world is designed for a small slice of people, not just the 49% or so that are male but the smaller percentage that are the “right size” of male, that becomes what we take for granted. We internalize the physical pressures of gendered design the same way we internalize the societal pressures of our skin color, or our weight, or our physical abilities.

Universal design wouldn’t just make the world more usable for so many of us: it would improve how we see the world, and how we see ourselves in it.

What Is Walking Good For?

Debbie says:

As the World Cup moves through its paces, I keep thinking about this post from Lisa Wade at Sociological Images:

Juliano Pinto, who has paraplegia, kicked off the World Cup wearing an exoskeleton. The media story is, of course, “Look at this amazing technology that lets people out of wheelchairs and let them walk!”

Lisa Wade refers us to Red Nicholson at AttitudeLive, who has a different view:

The implicit message from the media seems to be, ‘Wheelchairs suck! Walk in this robot instead!’.

In many ways, it’s as if mainstream news organisations have taken it upon themselves to fulfil the “dream” of wheelchair users, without actually stopping to ask two really important questions.

  1. Is this really your dream?
  2. How will this relentless pursuit of pseudo-walking (because let’s be clear here, we’re strapping you to a robot) make people feel who don’t share this dream?

So for the record: this is not my dream. I have no more desire to be strapped to a robot than I do to go swimming with great white sharks. In truth, my life as a wheelchair-user is a very good one. I do a lot of great things and know a lot of great people.

So hey, able-bodied media: quit making me feel like wheelchairs are a shitty, sub-par option. Stop beating your exoskeleton drum. And most of all, let go of your obsession with walking, because it’s totally overrated.

It should go without saying that Nicholson is making enormously good sense, and voices like his need to be heard — a lot!

But, speaking as a person who can walk, I think he is leaving out two important things.

First, our buildings and structures and systems need to be welcoming to people in wheelchairs. Walking is not over-rated if it’s the only way to get somewhere you need or want to be. Almost no single-family homes are built for wheelchairs, and many apartments are also inaccessible (though some dwellings are ramped after the fact, generally when a wheelchair user moves in). So life in a wheelchair means life not visiting a lot of other people’s homes, not seeing your friends in their own spaces. Even when public space is reasonably accessible, it is often not thought out: the building might be accessible but the bathroom door too narrow, or the elevators might take you to some floors and not others.

That’s a frustration that can be addressed by high-tech walking exoskeletons … or by responsible building practices and a commitment to universal design.

Second, temporarily able-bodied people like me (some disabled people call us “TABs”) are often patronizing, disparaging, or dismissive of people we can’t look in the eye. People in wheelchairs are often treated like children, or become invisible. It’s common for a wheelchair user with a service dog to have people talk to the dog and not the human … repeatedly. It’s not just common but standard for restaurant, store, and public employees to ask the walking companion of a wheelchair user “Does he want …?” “Would she like …?” as if the person in the chair was deaf, or incapable of talking, or incapable of thinking.

That’s a discrimination that can be addressed by high-tech walking exoskeletons … or by changing social expectations to recognize the lived human experience of the person in the chair.

I’m genuinely glad that Red Nicholson thinks walking is overrated. I think so too. But some of the perks that come with walking could be far more widely extended. And then maybe the high-tech exoskeletons would be more of a toy and less socially important.