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Issue #1 October 11, 2012 Oct 11, 2012 Oct 11
From Issue #25 September 12, 2013

Inclined to Help

What if disability is a consequence of bad design?

By Tim Maly Twitter icon 

Ramps are an ancient technology. Ramps helped build the pyramids. Ramps make it possible to haul wheeled luggage around at the airport. Ramps are probably the most visible architectural consequence of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Ramps make skateboarding more fun.

Ramps are so low tech as to be barely noticeable as a technology at all. Artist, designer, and academic Sara Hendren wants to re-enchant them, turning them into something that designers might notice again and begin to work with.

It’s part of Hendren’s larger aim to widen what people think about when we think about bodies and technology.

Eppur si muove

Written in 1600, Galileo’s Le Meccaniche defines and sets out a dynamic theory of six simple machines: the lever, the wheel and axle, the pulley, the wedge, the screw, and the inclined plane. Each provides a mechanical advantage, which amplifies force. The inclined plane, or ramp, seems like the odd one out.

Unlike its siblings, which must rotate or be used as an active tool to perform work, the plane lies still. It barely seems like a machine at all. “I’ve been calling it a ‘sleeping machine’ for that reason,” says Hendren, who focuses her work on disability studies. It is “a static object, deceptive in its simple geometry.” Right now, Hendren is really into ramps.

Hendren calls herself a public amateur. Her research and practice, documented on her Web site, is a riot of associations that cross the lines between high-end design, architecture, medical theory, prosthetics, and cybernetics. Spend some time with Hendren and you’ll find yourself in a conversation that veers wildly between fashionable hearing aids, Braille tattoos, the design of space suits, the relation of curb cuts to gentrification, and the origins of the smooth curves of the Eames Chair in the lacquered wooden leg splint that Charles and Ray designed for the US Navy.1

Her own projects tend toward the informal and the temporary. She seeks out what she calls the margins of design: work that’s happening away from the spotlight of the mainstream tech and design press, “either because they’re made of low-cost materials, or in informally organized settings, or because they happen in the context of, say, special education.” Her low-tech approach allows her to intervene and launch discussions in graphic design, architecture, and prosthetics.

“All of these fields are professionalized for good reasons — standardization of practice and form,” she says. “But you can easily get some calcification around the ‘proper channels’ for the way things are done.”

“Defining what counts as health, as normative experience, as quality of life — these are easily as much cultural questions as they are about statistics and data,” she says. “I want the latitude, as an amateur, to also ask those questions in public, to engage with specialties as much as possible as an outsider.”

In 2009, she redesigned the wheelchair accessibility icon as a guerrilla art project. In place of the stiff, upright, almost mechanical pose of the current standard, her icon depicts a wheelchair user leaning forward in dynamic motion. With project co-founder Brian Glenney, the first intention was to spark conversations about how people with disabilities are represented. When interest in the project took off, the icon was redesigned to be standards-compliant. It is now being phased in as the official symbol in such places as New York City and Austin, Texas.

Hendren says historian David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old helped snap into place her concerns about the myopic way technology is understood. “As we tell stories of technology in history, we link ‘technology’ almost exclusively with ‘invention’ (the creation of a new idea) and ‘innovation’ (the first use of a new idea),” she says. But often it’s old and pervasive tech that shapes history. Horses played a bigger role in the battles of World War II than the V2 rocket, says Edgerton, but the V2 was new and so it gets more attention.

For the past year, Hendren has been working with the Perkins School for the Blind’s Assistive Device Center, established 25 years ago. Using tri-wall cardboard, the center creates custom adaptive furniture for students at the school. She calls this low-cost, low-tech effort an overlooked corollary to the Biomechatronics group at MIT’s Media Lab.

“What metrics would compare these two practices? No question that there’s a technically important set of advances being made with the limbs of the Media Lab group,” she says, “but here you have many, many users getting multiple, completely customized tools for everyday stability and motion — tools that yield more autonomy, more dignity, more up-to-the-millimeter dynamic incremental development in the combination of singular user, fine joinery, and robust, affordable materials.

“Here, you have all the much-fetishized ‘design thinking’ going on effortlessly.”

Design accretion conspires

To address a gray area in the ADA and in cultural thinking about disability, Hendren has designed a ramp of her own. Measuring 3′ by 3′ with an adjustable 6″ elevation, her ramp is portable and stackable. Hendren designed it specifically with an ambiguity of purpose in mind.

The most obvious use for the ramp is that it solves a problem common in older cities, like Boston and New York. Many storefronts have a single step separating their entrance from street level, and though the ADA doesn’t require any accommodation, that step can be a significant obstacle to anyone in a wheelchair. Or, for that matter, anyone with a stroller, or a walker, or crutches, or a heavy suitcase, or a cart with a delivery to make.

“Cities are still by and large designed — or we inherit their past designs — by youngish men of a certain athletic prowess who are almost certainly never primary caregivers for young children or ailing family members or the elderly,” says Hendren. The result is that a city is often poorly designed for a great number of its users. As a new generation of urban planners and architects rethink the design of cities, Hendren hopes to encourage a wider understanding of whom the city is for and the role that design decisions play in enabling or disabling its citizens.

She explains that in disability studies, there is a growing distinction between the medical model of disability and the social model. In the medical model, people with atypical bodies are seen as being impaired. In the social model, the problem isn’t with the bodies, but with the environment that was built around them.

After all, the environment we live in didn’t just leap out of the ground from whole cloth. Cities were designed and then built a certain way; they could have been built in a different manner. In the social model, “people are disabled, but by the built environment, schools, transportation, economic structures having evolved to offer only the rather narrow goods that a late capitalist culture presumes,” says Hendren. “So we nurture some bodies, and we tolerate others.” If stairs were 5’ tall, just about everyone on earth would be disabled.

This is an idea that architects have played with before. The Brutalist-style Paul Rudolph Hall at Yale, used for architecture studies, has stairs designed such that they don’t allow a normal gait, making users constantly aware of the building. The cultural theorist Paul Virilio and the architect Claude Parent proposed replacing flat surfaces with an undulating series of inclines. A ramp provides resistance going up, and acceleration going down. “You could call it a kind of ‘eroticization’ of the ground,” said Virilio.

Speaking in 2010, the (blind) architect Chris Downey sang the praises of San Francisco’s much maligned Transbay Terminal because its long inclined planes made it easier and more interesting to navigate. (It was shut down and demolished that year to make way for a new one.) “I also wonder whether you could trace the development of wheeled luggage to the post-ADA,” says Hendren. “There’s much about ramps that assist people with all kinds of temporary situations — crutches, strollers — and heavy gear and so on.”

In the social model, disability is a matter of circumstances rather than a fundamental diagnosis about any particular body. It’s a state that we pass into and out of depending on what’s going on with us and the environment we’re in. If you are in possession of a relatively typical body and have found yourself blocked by a door because your arms were full, you’ll have a sense of what it means to be temporarily disabled.

If, laden by packages, you’ve ever hip-checked one of those buttons adorned by a wheelchair logo, you’ll have a sense of the degree to which the environment plays a role in enabling or disabling you. The automatic door is not an accommodation for special cases but a useful feature for everyone.

Ramping up

Hendren’s ramp isn’t just a tool to make it easier to get around. When she released her ramps into the wilds of Cambridge’s Harvard Square, she photographed wheelchair users mounting steps alongside skateboarders grinding along the edges, pedestrians sitting on them to listen to buskers, and a child on a bike gleefully riding the slopes of a set of ramps stacked into a mini obstacle course.

“What I want is much more energy and imagination given to questions of access and use — not tiresome and medicalized ‘accommodations,’ but edited cities where alternate bodies are assumed to be part of the landscape, and where the use of structures and tools might be less scripted,” she says.

One of the most damaging scripts that Hendren would like to overthrow is the sentimentality that surrounds parents with disabled children. “The most acceptable space for the mother of a disabled child to speak is the domesticated personal narrative,” she says. “I got pregnant. I dreamed of my perfect child. He arrived and Wasn’t Perfect. I was disappointed and worried. And then: He taught me things. Taught Me Things.”

Hendren reads a passage from Susan Wendell’s The Rejected Body.

Not only do physically disabled people have experiences which are not available to the able-bodied, they are in a better position to transcend cultural mythologies about the body, because they cannot do things the able-bodied feel they must do in order to be happy, “normal,” and sane…

If disabled people were truly heard, an explosion of knowledge of the human body and psyche would take place.

“I would take out ‘physically’ from the first sentence and add cognition/development to this idea as well,” Hendren says.

In the medical model of disability, this attitude is almost impossible to understand and feels pretty patronizing. After all, aren’t people with disabilities missing out? In the medical model, resistance in the deaf community to cochlear implants seems incomprehensible.

The point, says Hendren, is that we all get the same number of hours per day. “It’s as simple as: some experiences you’re having, and some you’re not,” she says. “You are not having rather more or rather less, unless you arrange your metrics in a lazy way.”

Hendren thinks designers and architects can do better. “It’s possible to have a very ‘correct’ idea about accommodations, provisions for schooling and such, and still presume a medical model. You can carry around the notion that a democratic society is one in which everyone thrives — regardless of productivity, regardless of capacity — and want to provide for those ‘needs,’” says Hendren.

“But it’s a much more radical notion to start to think about the ways structures have been un-imagined or preemptively imagined without much variation in body or mind. What would it mean to really profoundly undo our sense of which bodies count?”

Photos by Sara Hendren and Justin Knight, courtesy Sara Hendren.

  1. I met Hendren in person and we continued the conversation via email. Some of her quotations, with lots of punctuation, are her own usage in email. 

Tim Maly writes about cyborgs, architects, and our weird broken future.

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