What Can a Body Do?

by Sara Hendren


This book changed how I think about accessibility. Previously, I’d largely subscribed to the fairly standard “individualist” mental model, which suggests that the disability lies in someone’s own body. They’re missing a hand, they’re disabled. They’re confined to a wheelchair, they’re disabled. They’re mute, they’re disabled. And ultimately, in this picture, they are largely responsible to make up for it. This tends to fall into the aggregative fallacy, the idea that what is normal, or average, is desirable or right. The “average” body is normal.

But this book points to another way to imagine disability. This is the social model: disability is a function of the relationship between someone’s capabilities and the shape of the world.

The condition of disability is present whenever a body finds itself in what scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson has called a pointed “misfit” relationship with the world—not the melodrama of a tragedy to overcome, not merely a “defect” of the flesh, but a misfit: a disharmony that runs both ways, body to world and back.

If someone is using a wheelchair and encounters stairs, they’re disabled; there is a “misfit” between them and the built world. But if there’s a ramp? There is no disability. Because they’re able to do what others can, which is to say, get in the building.

(This whole mindset is also quite personal: I’m partially deaf in my right ear. In most situations, I’m not disabled. But in loud places, I encounter a “misfit”: it’s hard for me to hear, and so I find myself frequently disengaging from conversations. I am not able to keep up.)

This book is about seeking a more inclusive world by considering how we, as designers, can make the world we build more accessible to bodies of all shapes and sizes, and to minds of all abilities. She has loads of case studies from her experience in design and teaching design at Olin College of Engineering. And she models for me something I want to strive for: being a “humanist in tech,” which is to say, seeking a more humane and just world through technology and design.

Read the book! And if you don’t follow Sara Hendren’s blog, you should!