August 18, 2019

Good Design Can Save the World

“My mother was someone who made do in a world that didn’t fully account for her body. Born with bilateral clubfoot in 1940, she was not expected to walk. One of her earliest memories was of being carried by her father on to the bus, her plaster leg casts heavy from soaking in the bathtub the night before so that the doctor could remove them. After numerous childhood surgeries that rearranged the bones in her feet, my mother was able to walk, but everyone – including her – expected that she’d use a wheelchair by the time she was 30. Her toes were permanently curled under her feet, her heels didn’t touch the ground, and her calf muscles remained underdeveloped. She would never be spry, and shoes and socks would never fit quite right. I never saw her run.

But my mother didn’t use a wheelchair and, perhaps for that reason, never referred to herself as handicapped nor to her disability as a disability, not even late in her life when disability became more openly discussed. Instead, as disabled people have done throughout history, she navigated the designed world as best she could.

‘There is no design-free world,’ writes Iris Bohnet, a behavioural economist at Harvard, in her book What Works: Gender Equality by Design (2016). The material world in which individuals engage every day is shaped and reshaped through design – for better or worse. When entering a space, people have long been expected not only to compensate for but also to overcome their disabilities. But sometimes, no amount of ingenuity can overcome the mismatch between a given individual and a given space – and then, exclusion is the result.”

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