11 Jan 2021

What Can a Body Do: How We Meet the Built World by Sara Hendren

What can a body do? The answer, presented in a richly investigative and thought-provoking new book by Sara Hendren, is that it depends on a huge number of factors but many of these factors are shaped by the built world around us – not just buildings or structures, but also technology and constructs such as time (which in the chapter Clock, Hendren demonstrates is really just an idea made manifest by everyone going along with it, or trying to).

What can a body do

Artist, designer and teacher at Olin College of Engineering, Sara Hendren has written a fantastic book that in just a short and very readable 200 pages explores a wide range of disabilities and how these disabilities are experienced differently through contact with the built world. Through these examples, such as bespoke assistive cardboard furniture from Adaptive Design Association, to De Hogeweyk village in The Netherlands for those living with dementia to Gallaudet University with its dormitories designed with DeafSpace principles, Hendren tackles some of the profound themes associated with disability today. Hendren draws on relevant histories to give context to design and shows how some of these histories still play a major role in our broad understanding of disability in the 21st century. She also shows how incredibly resilient, resourceful and unique the experience of disability can be, despite a long history of ill-considered design, or a recent history of over-designing or universal design.

While it is clear through her examples that Hendren is advocating for a renewed understanding of disability – her personal experience as a mother to a son with Down syndrome is drawn on in multiple chapters – I appreciated the nuanced approach to her discussions throughout the book. Hendren gets design. She is intimately familiar with design principles and processes and understands that arguments go back and forth for universal design, for example. She enthuses people, designers and non-designers alike, to look harder and to become more aware at all the touchpoints where the built world intersects with our lived lives (which is to say, everywhere, all the time).

Hendren has a comprehensive knowledge of disability and draws on the research she has done, much of which stems from spending many hours in unique spaces and talking with people experiencing different disabilities. I found the examples really interesting – the Green Man+ pedestrian card in Singapore led to an enthusiastic discussion – and it would be worth reading the book for these alone, but Hendren does a great job of weaving in questions, discussion and her own thoughts, without preaching and while always adding another layer to the argument.

In the last few years, numerous books have filled the library shelves about time. It’s an entire big bucks industry – saving time (Marie Kondo anyone?), or slowing time (mindfulness, hygge and ikigai are some of the philosophies turned buzzwords) and many books on the idea of busyness particularly as it is associated with technology. Here, for the first time, I have read a thorough discussion on how our way of relating to time, which is highly-structured, with a focus on speed and forward momentum, effects people with disabilities or those living on “crip time”. This chapter is a must read, both as a way of examining our own behaviour and as a way of broadening our view of individual experience. “Economic productivity – a life performed in normative, regulated time – is still the unquestioned and overwhelmingly dominant metric for human worth.”