Saturday 25 September 2021


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What Can a Body Do? How we meet the built world by Sara Hendren    {Reviewed by STELLA}
A book about how we physically meet the world, but so much more. A book about designing for disability and adjustments that we can make, simple as well as complicated, to interact with our built environment. And how the world could change to meet us in new ways. This is an articulate and illuminating exploration filled with intriguing examples of models of designed engagement, with historical precedents and thought-provoking conversations and ideas. Sara Hendren, designer and researcher, takes us across America, to India and The Netherlands in her study of people and innovation. From her classroom of engineering students grappling with a design problem for an art curator to a volunteering programme for community service administered and enacted by disabled teenagers in Boston, to a workshop in Manhattan that makes innovative low-cost cardboard chairs designed for one—specific to that individual’s need, to the experiences of two men — one who uses home-made solutions for his limblessness and the other with a highly technical ‘smart’ arm — in meeting their daily world with ease, and into her own story of having a son with Down’s Syndrome. Hendren travels to India to introduce us to the simple success of a prosthetics industry that uses bicycle parts (replaceable and mendable) to resolve the needs of its inhabitants and the environment they live in. In The Netherlands, she visits a village for dementia residents — a village that has all the hallmarks of freedom with the security required to reassure and to enhance the experiences of the adults who live there. These examples and others build into her discussion of design and its role in contemporary society to give meaning and agency to those that don’t fit in the ‘normative’ structure which statistics and the bell curve have exacerbated in our modern world. Hendren’s thoughtful deliberations about the fallacy of the ‘average’, about what ‘independence’ is, and why the structure of economic capital with its focus on work-as-worth and the constructs of ‘time’ as a measure are drawbacks to all of us, not just the disabled. She underscores her research with disability activism of the past, and she does not shy away from the complexities of the present with its many-faceted arguments and different approaches, including opposing design theories. The case studies are various, and within these we encounter multiple approaches and responses to the body and its abilities and, more importantly, the vagaries, often unnecessarily so, of the built world. Enlivening and insightful, What Can A Body Do? is a study in awareness and a challenge to our ethical commitment, as well as our practical ability, to make a better world for every body.

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