Forest Young: Thank you so much Sara. And I can per­son­al­ly attest, because I am hold­ing this book here… Which I had to pull away from my 7‑month-old baby who almost ripped this book to shreds because it is just as com­pelling as an object as it is a series of amaz­ing narratives. 

So one of the things, Sara, that can kind of sum­ma­rize my expe­ri­ence of read­ing your book as like unto falling down a flight of stairs. It was inju­ri­ous, I think only to a mul­ti­tude of cal­ci­fied notions and dis­tor­tions that I real­ized that I was har­bor­ing. And as I lay flat­tened on my back look­ing up, it was a van­tage point and a per­spec­tive that I nev­er would’ve been able to arrive at myself. And so I would open with just a feel­ing of grat­i­tude. A grat­i­tude for that injury, but also just an inspir­ing way to…to learn? And I think in some ways, for those that hope­ful­ly are eager­ly pur­chas­ing this book as we speak, because as many of you know I don’t give praise easily—it’s maybe a per­son­al defect. So with the high­est praise, I think that the book is… I think it’s going to be a piv­otal piece with­in our canon. And I think in many ways you talk about Victor Papanek and Rachel Carson, and I think this will be along that ilk. Because I think it is incred­i­bly gen­er­ous, and easy to under­stand, and in some ways that’s its most dis­arm­ing qual­i­ty? That you intro­duce us to indi­vid­u­als, in very inti­mate sto­ries, and you orga­nize them in this very com­pelling cos­mol­o­gy of the inti­ma­cy of a limb, the tan­gi­bil­i­ty of a chair, the spa­tial qual­i­ties of a room, how we think about and nav­i­gate and inter­vene in streets. 

And then ulti­mate­ly my favorite per­haps is Clock,” which is maybe some­thing that for both peo­ple who are the non-disabled like me real­ize that in many ways that is maybe my own per­son­al impair­ment, which is that I’m caught up in the indus­tri­ous clock and how may I own per­cep­tion of time is in itself injurious. 

But I want­ed to speak about some­thing that I think is some­thing we both share, is that I think the rea­son why your work is so sticky is because you’re very com­fort­able in gray areas. Which I tend to find very frus­trat­ing. I want to snap into a solu­tion, I want to snap into a yes or no, right and wrong. And you don’t allow that. You keep us in this par­tic­u­lar fric­tion­ful way of per­ceiv­ing the world, and of course encour­ag­ing this kind of plu­ral­i­ty of futures. And I’m curi­ous about your path that you’ve tak­en to arrive at this place, what you call kind of paving a road to pro­duc­tive uncer­tain­ty. Because I think that’s unique­ly special. 

Sara Hendren: Well let me— Yeah, let me go and say a few words. Let me back up and let’s do the slides and sort of ori­ent folks now. And let me put a pin in that question—I love that you’ve opened with it because it has to do with what I’m hop­ing is in the room today with peo­ple who are here. 

Let me just say, too, thank you so much Forest for being here today, for rea­sons that I’ll name in a sec­ond. But I want to also just thank the fel­lows pro­gram at New America, and Awista and Peter, Sarah and Narmada who orga­nized today. The fel­lows pro­gram at New America was a cru­cial bit of sup­port for get­ting this book done and I just am so grate­ful for that time, that unre­strict­ed time to think. So thank you for it. 

Let’s go if we can to a lit­tle overview that— It is a book about design and I want peo­ple to just drop in a lit­tle bit on some of the sto­ries there. And then I’ll talk a lit­tle bit about why I want­ed to have Forest here at this moment in New America and for our con­ver­sa­tion today. So Narmada could you go to the slides please? 

A copy of Sara's book on a blue surface. The cover is a bright yellow color, with the title, "What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World" and her name both in very large type, composed so that they fall off the outer edges a bit

So this is yes, the cov­er. And if you could go to the next one, actually. 

a body in the world = "misfitting"

Right. The intro­duc­tion in the book is what’s borne out in this cov­er, which is this idea of mis­fit­ting.” And if you saw it in the object that Forest raised, that the type itself is actu­al­ly too big for the books. So it’s this ques­tion, right, of whether the type is too big for the book or whether the book is too small to con­tain that type. And this is what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls the state of dis­abil­i­ty, which is mis­fit­ting. And it’s sig­nif­i­cant because she says it’s a square peg in a round hole conun­drum. Which means not that bod­ies are bro­ken and there­fore fail to come to the world, but that the world is actu­al­ly shaped in a way that only hon­ors and allows to thrive cer­tain kinds of bod­ies, cer­tain moments at a time. And so the mis­fit is actu­al­ly two ways: between the body to the world and the world to the body. And so it’s actu­al­ly not clear how you get a bet­ter desir­able future for a lot­ta kinds of bod­ies. It’s not clear that’s the realm pure­ly of med­ical treat­ment, right. And it’s not even always want­ed. And so the onus is on all of us of course to adapt our­selves to the world. 

But we can also actu­al­ly ask the built world to come a lit­tle bit more toward our bod­ies, and dis­abled peo­ple have been doing that for a long time. So I intro­duce folks to Rosemarie in the begin­ning of the book. Can we go to the next one? 

I just wan­na drop you in on Chris, who’s here on the right. And Chris is a 30-something white man you’ll see here, who’s at the chang­ing table with his new­born baby. And Chris as you see was born with one arm. And there were half a dozen pros­thet­ic arms built for him in his youth, and folks were quite sure that he would need a pros­the­sis but Chris, it turned out because he was born this way has adapt­ed to life one-handed quite well. 

And we drop in on him at this moment, which is the moment that did call for a pros­the­sis. Not a uni­ver­sal pros­the­sis like the one you see on the left. And the oth­er one you see on the left is the over­whelm­ing sto­ry about what a pros­thet­ic arm should look like. This idea of replaced func­tion­al­i­ty, super high-end mate­ri­als, quite expen­sive cir­cuit­ry and so on. 

But here we have in this incred­i­bly inti­mate domes­tic set­ting, hav­ing built his own pros­the­sis for just the right tool at just the right time. And that is these soft felt lit­tle hol­sters that hold his baby’s ankles in this incred­i­bly nim­ble way. So if you go to the next slide. 

replacement parts for the things that matter

The ques­tion I want for the read­er, is to say What are the replace­ment parts that would replace the things that mat­ter to me? When my body changes, where is my body in this?” And if you’re some­one who uses pros­thet­ic parts already then you know this in your bones, and it’s sort of a com­pare and con­trast with those expe­ri­ences. But if you’re not some­body who uses replace­ment parts right now, you might ask your­self when and how would I choose among those things and how would I know? What are the things that mat­ter? So if you’ll go to the next slide. 

I place Chris and also a user of one of those super high-tech arms, anoth­er man named Mike, among this rich, rich, vast his­to­ry of pros­thet­ics includ­ing the post-World War II phe­nom­e­non of reha­bil­i­ta­tion engi­neer­ing, the incred­i­ble Audre Lorde who you see on the bot­tom left who wrote in her book The Cancer Journals about her very com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship to opt­ing out of a pros­the­sis after a mas­tec­to­my on one side. We go to India to look at the incred­i­ble Jaipur Foot, which is a low-tech low­er limb pros­the­sis that is designed and built and dis­trib­uted for free at the scale of a mil­lion and half at this point, more. And we meet Cindy who became a quadru­ple amputee at 60 and has assem­bled a whole suite of objects. 

So pros­thet­ics do all kinds of things, and they are res­olute­ly biopo­lit­i­cal. And we’re see­ing this now with the mask. There’s nev­er been a more biopo­lit­i­cal pros­the­sis than the mask right this moment. But pros­thet­ics, and dis­abled peo­ple know this well, have been biopo­lit­i­cal and in our lives in com­pli­cat­ed ways for a long time. 

So what replace­ment parts would replace the things that mat­ter. If you’ll go to the next one. 

what does it mean to dwell? (independence reframed)

Another idea in the book is what does it mean to dwell? How do we think about inde­pen­dence, for all of us, in ways that change over the lifes­pan? If you’ll go to the next one. 

We drop in in this chap­ter to Gallaudet, which is there in Washington DC—I think we have a lot of Washington folks on the call—which is an all-deaf cam­pus. And what we’re look­ing at here is the lob­by of a dorm space that’s built around a whole pro­gram, and archi­tec­tur­al pro­gram called DeafSpace. And it is not an archi­tec­ture to cre­ate the con­di­tions of hear­ing. It is in fact a whole enve­lope, as archi­tects would say, around the beau­ty and the integri­ty of the visu­al lan­guage of sign and the kin­da embod­i­ment of deaf expe­ri­ence. So we’re look­ing at a num­ber of peo­ple in the lob­by, sit­ting and sign­ing to one anoth­er over these half-height walls that cre­ate real­ly long sight­lines. It’s a beau­ti­ful sun­lit inte­ri­or with a long ramp down the right. And these sol­id greens and blues are there in place of bright white or prints because they make for ide­al con­trast for skin tones of var­i­ous col­ors to do the fine work of visu­al sign­ing. So go to the next one. 

So, it’s a ques­tion about how to do well, right, in the spaces we’re in. What makes for the con­di­tion of dwelling and thriv­ing? And that chap­ter goes on to chron­i­cle a famous civ­il rights leader, Ed Roberts, who you’re look­ing at on the left as a black and white pho­to of two white men in col­lege who were also wheel­chair users, Herb Willsmore and Ed Roberts. And Roberts on the right was a polio sur­vivor. He used a lot of com­plex med­ical equip­ment his whole life. And through a real­ly inter­est­ing, long sto­ry that I won’t go into, he was able to work with a doc­tor at the hos­pi­tal on cam­pus at Berkeley to live in the hos­pi­tal room as a dor­mi­to­ry room. And in fact ten or twelve oth­er stu­dents in the years after Ed came to cam­pus were able to do so as well. They called them­selves The Rolling Quads, and they rein­vent­ed a dor­mi­to­ry on cam­pus, that had not been avail­able to them. Had not been avail­able to them. They were thought of as rehab clin­i­cal sub­jects. And here they were rein­vent­ing college. 

So that became an idea. Like we can actu­al­ly live, even in a hos­pi­tal set­ting, with help, and yet also be the deter­mi­nants and agents of our own lives. And so they launched the Center for Independent Living and indeed what’s known as the Independent Living Movement. And you’ll see these store­fronts still. They’ve been repli­cat­ed in all fifty states since this his­to­ry. And they pro­vide refer­rals for hir­ing care atten­dants and out­fit­ting homes and so on for wheel­chair use and oth­er adap­tive kind of changes. But an idea of inde­pen­dence that has help in it. Not just what we do by our­selves, but an orches­tra­tion of help that is a way to dwell. So let’s go to the next one. 

public space > the public sphere

Public space is a way of get­ting into the pub­lic sphere. We know this but in dis­abil­i­ty and design this has been an incred­i­bly impor­tant his­to­ry. If you can go to the next one. 

Among many things in the Street” chap­ter, we look at the his­to­ry of curb cuts but we also link it then to what may be more famil­iar to peo­ple in their imme­di­ate, which is the tac­ti­cal urban­ism of bike lanes and things like desire lines, the kind of casu­al paths that are carved in pub­lic space. And we think about—curb cuts are so ubiq­ui­tous now as to be beneath our notice a lot of times if we don’t use them in a con­scious way in a wheel­chair. But if roll a stroller over those curb cuts, if you are using a bike, walk­ing a bike or a skate­board, you also par­tic­i­pate in a very hard-won pol­i­tics that was an edit­ing of the built envi­ron­ment, which is stub­born and con­crete and does­n’t move eas­i­ly. But here it was rolled out at infra­struc­tur­al scale, and that his­to­ry is just incred­i­ble. You can go to the next one. 

design for slowness?

And final­ly this is Clock” that Forest ref­er­enced. It’s the last chap­ter. Which is the hard­est conun­drum of all, which is to say when’s the design for slow­ness? And if you’ll go to the next one. 

A crossing signal request box with an illustration of a green-colored walking figure, and a hand touching a card with the same symbol to the box.

It opens with a pro­file of the Green Man Plus pro­gram in Singapore, which is no more and no less than a trans­port card that when it hov­ers over the call box at a pedes­tri­an sig­nal like you’re see­ing here it will, on demand, give you twelve or thir­teen extra sec­onds in the crosswalk—just for you, and then it will revert back to its nor­ma­tive time struc­tures. And that was a way for Singapore city to accom­mo­date an aging pop­u­la­tion that need­ed more time in the cross­walk. So there’s a kin­da mate­r­i­al design that’s mak­ing the city flex and bend in this real­ly ele­gant way. 

And yet of course slow­ness is not just a kind of mat­ter of speed and gait, and I get into a lit­tle bit of my own expe­ri­ence shar­ing life with a per­son with Down Syndrome, my son Graham who’s now 14, and think­ing a lot about the his­to­ry of devel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ty. The design for man­age­ment of intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ty that hap­pened at the scale of insti­tu­tions and asy­lums. And a real­ly hope­ful sto­ry in the end of a kin­da ser­vice design com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice for young adults with dis­abil­i­ties who are mak­ing and remak­ing the world in their way as well. So we can stop shar­ing now. 

I just want to say that the rea­son why I want­ed to ask Forest to be here today and in the con­text of New America is because I am strug­gling, yes. You and I, Forest, have kind of inverse roles, where you are very much lodged in indus­try and you have roles in acad­e­mia and oth­er kinds of social work that you do on behalf of design and pol­i­tics. I work in the realm of acad­e­mia, which has the lib­er­ty to be as crit­i­cal of tech­nol­o­gy as it pleas­es. And in fact I am part of many cohorts of schol­ars who deeply nour­ished me about all the ways that the excess­es of tech need a kind of cri­tique brought to bear. 

But I have also— I’m strug­gling because I’ve also seen a lot of real­ly good design. There’s a sto­ry in my book about a man with ALS who orches­trat­ed with a phil­an­thropist and a nurs­ing home direc­tor and a bunch of tech­nol­o­gists a way for him to live his life with…you know, auto­mat­ed by a cur­sor that’s mount­ed on his glass­es and a wheelchair-mounted tablet. And what that does for him in the self-determination of his life and the way that he lives, Steve would say…this is him now, not me, that tech­nol­o­gy is the cure, actu­al­ly, until med­i­cine proves oth­er­wise. The tech­nol­o­gy, he would say, is the cure. He’s quite san­guine about it. 

And so I can­not afford a kind of either/or, you know: tech bad, pol­i­tics good. You will find through­out the book if you read it that it is full of pol­i­tics and move­ments, for which there is no sub­sti­tute in rights move­ments, for sure. And yet the bod­ied­ness of the body does actu­al­ly ask us what is it that we prag­mat­i­cal­ly need in our lives, and some of that is bet­ter tools and tech­nolo­gies. And some of those come to us by the log­ic of markets. 

So, some of you will be say­ing like, Well Sara, yeah, we get it. You need both, right. Or you need some­thing in the mid­dle.’ ” And I am real­ly unsat­is­fied with that kind of you know…both/and, rest­ing in the mid­dle. I actu­al­ly think we need more spe­cif­ic and dis­ci­plined lan­guages for talk­ing about the worlds that we build. So in my book I ref­er­ence David Edgerton and technology-in-use” as a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about impact. And I ref­er­ence Ezio Manzini, who gives us the idea of net­worked dif­fused design, for instance. And look at low-tech and high-tech and— I try to do some things but it’s a whole infi­nite world and I guess I sense at new America there is also this wrestling between where mar­kets do their work and how can we char­ac­ter­ize and talk about them. And also, the very real lim­i­ta­tions of any designed any­thing ever, right. That noth­ing will sub­sti­tute for a politics. 

And let me just say final­ly— So I want to hear your reac­tion, Forest, to all that. In any place. But I also want­ed to say to the whole group, and includ­ing myself, the biggest exhor­ta­tion to find the agency that we do have, right. Like I teach a bunch of young peo­ple who end up in indus­try or who start in indus­try and maybe they migrate else­where. Some of you have your main post in indus­try but you are not just the thing that you get paid for. Some of us are feel­ing quite stymied by the ivory tow­er lim­i­ta­tions of acad­e­mia, but what are the realms of agency where we can act, per­haps espe­cial­ly in 2020. As fam­i­ly mem­bers, as com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, as neigh­bors, and yes also in our work. So, thanks so much Forest for…just…the leap of faith in being here. Where are you in all this? 

Young: Thank you so much. And I think you know, one of the inter­est­ing things I think the book does very well is it simplifies…not over­ly so, but it sim­ply asks us to med­i­tate on and poten­tial­ly to cri­tique the periph­ery of this moment where the body meets the world. And I think in an aca­d­e­m­ic set­ting, the inser­tion into that con­ver­sa­tion is through ped­a­gogy. What are the meth­ods by which we hold up as either exem­plars of the way that we should learn or the way that we should teach, and the arti­facts that we hold up in high esteem. And ped­a­gogy itself of course is, and right­ly so, has been incred­i­bly scru­ti­nized over the last year. You know, speak­ing as a design­er and in design edu­ca­tion, so much of design of course stem­ming from this mod­ernist notion of form and func­tion, or as you kind of quot­ing Heskett of the squar­ing of util­i­ty and insignif­i­cance, is real­ly look­ing at a spe­cif­ic Western or European can­non com­ing out of the Bauhaus. Of course teach­ing at Yale, where Josef Albers was the head of the School of Art, they’re it’s still steeped in mod­ernism or you know, post-modernism or some type of tense rela­tion­ship with that idea of form and function. 

I think in terms of ped­a­gogy, what’s love­ly about what Sheila de Bretteville’s brought to the pro­gram is this idea of what Paulo Freire would call that the ped­a­gogy of the oppressed. To specif­i­cal­ly talk about the pur­pose of edu­ca­tion, specif­i­cal­ly design edu­ca­tion, it’s not to be over­ly smit­ten with the com­mer­cial via­bil­i­ty of one’s work. And I think that’s very…sometimes prob­lem­at­ic for crit­ics that come in to see a grad­u­ate cri­tique and they’re try­ing to in some ways ini­tial­ly val­i­date the work based on some type of com­mer­cial cri­te­ria of via­bil­i­ty. And then ulti­mate­ly real­ize that it’s real­ly a con­ver­sa­tion around ideas? And specif­i­cal­ly, a unique­ly self-possessed way of under­stand­ing their own kind of hard-fought per­spec­tive on an idea, and their hard-fought way of say­ing, This is the way in which I want to make this idea real.” And under­stand­ing that there is a buffer between that con­ver­sa­tion and that con­ver­sa­tion of kind of com­mer­cial viability. 

I think it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to think about, when you talk about crip time which I think is my favorite aha moment in the book, which is in some way we’re all enslaved to this indus­tri­al notion of mea­sur­ing our­selves based on effi­cien­cy. Even whether or not I go into the three-year pro­gram or the two-year pro­gram in grad­u­ate school. Who’s get­ting an intern­ship ver­sus who’s get­ting a job. How am I pro­gress­ing through that job. And in some ways all of these plat­forms that are well-intentioned… You know, see­ing at LinkedIn that some­one got a pro­mo­tion, real­iz­ing am I keep­ing pace with that per­son. And so this com­pet­i­tive mind­set ends up always—you’re kind of keep­ing this com­pet­i­tive mind­set at bay I think, also as an edu­ca­tor as well as a student.

Hendren: Yeah.

Young: And I do think that what’s inter­est­ing by shift­ing between the spaces of acad­e­mia and indus­try is that I’m real­iz­ing that there is some­times this unwel­comed inser­tion between body and world of com­merce. Does the body actu­al­ly needs this. Was the body actu­al­ly ask­ing for this. And is this some­thing that is you know, an emp­ty promise, or it’s insert­ing kind of a sell­ing propo­si­tion ver­sus a true kind of ser­vice propo­si­tion. And I think those are the things that I con­tin­ue to wres­tle with, but I think that you’re right to be trou­bled by in some ways, what is the pure con­ver­sa­tion of body and world, but then what are these kind per­ver­sions of that pure con­ver­sa­tion that are these con­sid­er­a­tions of mar­ket, or even edu­ca­tion­al via­bil­i­ty. Maybe ped­a­gogy is even in some ways a per­verse inser­tion to some degree. 

Hendren: Yeah I mean, I think… It’s so inter­est­ing what you say, and in my own work with stu­dents at the ped­a­gog­i­cal moment a lot of times we’re work­ing with dis­abled artists, for instance, who are ask­ing for a very par­tic­u­lar, very expres­sive design. So we’ve worked with Alice Sheppard of Kinetic Light, who is wheel­chair user and a dancer. And Alice want­ed a ramp built, but not a ramp for get­ting into a build­ing, she want­ed a ramp for stage. And so peo­ple have said to me about this ped­a­gog­i­cal thing, right, My stu­dents are gonna go into indus­try. They’re not actu­al­ly going to be asked to make raps for danc­ing, prob­a­bly ever again,” right. That was quite a unique experience. 

And I’m won­der­ing if it’s not easy for me to think that yes, full stop, I’m ful­ly aware that they’re going to go into indus­try and most­ly into soft­ware. Because it’s the reign­ing work of our day. But that they have had an encounter with Alice that was out­side the log­ic of the mar­ket, and that encoun­ters and relationships—especially the con­vivi­al­i­ty of build­ing some­thing together—and I have nev­er seen any­thing more con­vivial than that. You and me and this thing that we’re build­ing togeth­er. Because it trains our eyes on this thing? but in fact the work is hap­pen­ing between and among us. And my hope is that stu­dents hav­ing had that encounter with Alice where they were hav­ing to dial back from all their notions about what they thought wheel­chair use was, whether they thought Alice’s life was kind of sad and oh, they dis­cov­ered she’s a real dimen­sion­al human being with all kinds of expe­ri­ences. And what they thought engi­neer­ing could do in the world. That then, five, six years hence, they are mak­ing the soft­ware, some­body has a ques­tion about whether a blind user is going to be able to nav­i­gate this thing. And because I’ve had the encounter with Alice and maybe sev­er­al oth­ers, they don’t hes­i­tate to get on the phone and called the Association for the Blind down the street. 

In oth­er words they’ve got­ten over the awk­ward­ness of think­ing… I think a lot of peo­ple, rank and file, are try­ing to do well. But if they don’t have it in their mind’s eye for one thing, it’s an unknown unknown, right. But also the awk­ward­ness of say, what if I do it wrong? What if I offend some­one? What if I com­plete­ly back­fire this engage­ment? I keep think­ing, have I built enough trust that you’ll make the call. 

And then I also think, is it naive for me to think…you know, folks doing design at your lev­el, Forest, it is a human set of deci­sions, isn’t it? Who’s in the room? Who’s asked the ques­tion? I mean, I have stu­dents, alums from Olin, who went into indus­try, got a lit­tle dis­il­lu­sioned with it, went into tech pol­i­cy, and then also felt like, Oh, you know what? I can actu­al­ly be more effec­tive if I’m actu­al­ly in indus­try. It’s a trade­off. It’s not real­ly clear where my pol­i­tics would show up.” So again, how does that land for you? 

Young: Yeah no, I think you bring up some very inter­est­ing things that also make me…excited but also skep­ti­cal in the same degree. One is I actu­al­ly think that the speed in which—you know, either the speed of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion, or the speed of kind of tech­no­log­i­cal con­ver­gence in all these kind of adja­cent tech­no­log­i­cal areas are becom­ing these kind of mono­lith­ic plat­forms. But in some ways the jobs,” or the prob­lems are either so com­plex or they have nev­er been seen in quite this embodiment. 

So the way to pre­pare for those…in some ways I think a lot of that you’re talk­ing about in your book is this trade­off between bespoke and kind of mass pro­duc­tion. And in some ways, I think edu­ca­tion was seen as valid, right, from a ped­a­gog­i­cal per­spec­tive, if the thing that you’re encoun­ter­ing is a sim­u­la­tion of the thing you’re going to be experience—or be paid for. But more and more so, it’s impos­si­ble for edu­ca­tion to pre­pare for the things most of my stu­dents are going to be fac­ing, even two years out. 

And so in some ways this desta­bi­liz­ing, con­vivial approach to solving…you know, and acquir­ing this kin­da plas­tic­i­ty of mind, is going to be the new require­ment. But it’s still…my skep­ti­cal side is that’s a new require­ments still with­in the realm of com­merce. Like com­merce will demand that plas­tic­i­ty and adapt­abil­i­ty. But I do think in some ways…your book proves out in many mean­ing­ful areas that it’s from technology-in-use, but also specif­i­cal­ly talk­ing about inser­tions of like an oblique angle prob­lem that get one to tru­ly fun­da­men­tal­ly free them­selves from the entrap­ments of a his­tor­i­cal way of solv­ing it. Which still would be market-viable, because you’re still talk­ing about dis­rup­tion”—

Hendren: [mir­rors Young’s air quotes] Yeah.

Young: —or dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion. So I think the amount of slip­page between some­thing with high integri­ty and some­thing of mar­ket via­bil­i­ty I think that’s becom­ing incred­i­bly nuanced. 

Hendren: Well, and I don’t know— I mean, I would push back on whether that’s a new thing? So here I want to invoke the great Danielle Allen, polit­i­cal philoso­pher who writes a lot about edu­ca­tion and for whom the hori­zon of edu­ca­tion, the goal, is what she calls par­tic­i­pa­to­ry readi­ness.” Which yes, can include pro­fes­sion­al readi­ness, but super­sedes pro­fes­sion­al readi­ness. That par­tic­i­pa­to­ry readi­ness is the endur­ing invi­ta­tion of an edu­ca­tion. That you arrive in your life ready to be a civic actor. And of course that is in a new way com­pli­cat­ed by…certainly in our own coun­try the cost of high­er edu­ca­tion and so on. 

But Allen has also account­ed for a lot of peo­ple’s objec­tions to this about you know, eco­nom­ic mobil­i­ty and what seems like the…we should just hew to pro­fes­sion­al readi­ness on a cer­tain kind of pol­i­tics. And she’s like no no, it’s pre­cise­ly right if we want a gen­uine­ly equi­table future that par­tic­i­pa­to­ry readi­ness remains our hori­zon. So right, when I give you the exam­ple of my stu­dent going to the com­pa­ny and mak­ing a bet­ter” deci­sions, still with­in com­mer­cial via­bil­i­ty, I hope I’m think­ing about one fea­ture of the way acad­e­mia and indus­try inter­act. I hope, in a much big­ger way, that when my stu­dents are talk—when I’m talk­ing to them for four years and get­ting to wit­ness their lives at that moment that I’m doing what teach­ers have always done, which is to try to make some space for them to become whole peo­ple. And there again, the con­vivi­al­i­ty of build­ing some­thing togeth­er can be part of that thing. Mostly because it’s the rela­tion­ships and how do we make space for our best work, and what does it mean to nego­ti­ate our con­flicts and become sur­prised by one anoth­er and un-curate our expe­ri­ence, and all those things that edu­ca­tion has been doing for a long time and should con­tin­ue, right.

I mean, would you real­ly put a… I mean, I just don’t know how his­tor­i­cal­ly new the learn­ing to learn” as opposed to learn­ing the next soft­ware lan­guage, you know what I mean? That’s always been like, super quick­ly outmoded. 

Young: I think that’s— I mean I think it does have kind of a… It’s been kind of his­tor­i­cal­ly per­pet­u­at­ed but I think that the trans­paren­cy that so many of these dig­i­tal and kind of Internet win­dows have giv­en us is the real­iza­tion that—and I would hold myself account­able to some degree…the lack of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry readi­ness I think I would say maybe in some kind of edu­ca­tion­al set­tings is the buffer­ing between com­mer­cial via­bil­i­ty and the space of ideas. 

And why I say that I’m on the fence about whether or not that actu­al­ly is encour­ag­ing par­tic­i­pa­to­ry readi­ness is I think that the exam­ple that Amanda shows in terms of craft­ing this lectern is she’s incred­i­bly per­sua­sive. And one of the things I think that art schools strug­gle with is how can one be per­sua­sive. And it feels alien in the con­text of you know, kind of right-brain pur­suits to be able to tog­gle between a kind of a fan­tas­ti­cal notion or a self-possessed vision, and the abil­i­ty to then put your­self in the shoes of some­body who has to accept that vision or has to agree to it. And that spe­cif­ic nego­ti­a­tion often­times hap­pens in the pro­fes­sion­al con­text.” How do I pass through the gate of con­vinc­ing my team” that this idea has via­bil­i­ty and mer­it? How do I con­vince the client part­ner that this idea has mer­it and address­es some of their con­cerns that this made thing will be some­thing that will be paint­ed in a pic­ture of suc­cess. And ulti­mate­ly, how can there be a kind of a viral nar­ra­tive that they’re able to tell to their kin­da man­age­r­i­al ladder. 

And I go back and forth on that. Because to your point about pol­i­cy, mak­ing some­thing real or trans­lat­ing an idea into a made thing…has an out­sized degree of per­sua­sive tac­tics attached to it, where the made thing we roman­ti­cize because it’s about you know craft, and it’s about form and beau­ty, and it’s about sig­nif­i­cance, and then arti­fact­ing the body in ques­tion. But how can con­vince” some­one that this is an arti­fact that should be wel­comed? And that’s where it feels alien because it feels like sell­ing is creep­ing in to the con­ver­sa­tion. But I think that’s where I see par­tic­i­pa­to­ry readi­ness… You know, I’m skep­ti­cal about it in some degree. Because I think in the realm of ideas, how can I con­vince” a room of some­thing. And it may be that in art school it’s the realm of every­one’s idea is kind of per­fect, every­one’s idea is theirs. But there may be a moment where you and I are talk­ing about where I actu­al­ly think the major­i­ty peo­ple are tru­ly fun­da­men­tal­ly wrong. And how can I…move this nee­dle. And I think that’s an inter­est­ing space that we find our­selves in. 

Hendren: Totally. And so as you say, it gets close to sell­ing. But it also—and my col­league John Adler who is an expert in nar­ra­tive iden­ti­ty and all the ways that we bio­log­i­cal­ly need sto­ries in our lives to make lit­er­al sense; I mean just at the hard-wiring of how we oper­ate. And he said to me read­ing the book like, This book is so much about sto­ries, about nar­ra­tive.” And I want­ed to say that [Allen?] in her kin­da three-part like—what makes par­tic­i­pa­to­ry readi­ness, she describes some­thing called prophet­ic refram­ing,” which she talks about like that’s the role of words and rhetoric and sto­ries. And so if you look at Dr. King—I mean you look at the way folks used the refram­ing ges­ture to tell a dif­fer­ent story. 

So I mean like, you could say yeah, some­times are we col­laps­ing to the per­sua­sion of sell­ing. But some­times are we using lan­guage to re-story what the world real­ly is, you know. And I do feel like in this book…it hangs very much on sto­ries, you know. Like why should you look at Chris’ lit­tle pros­the­sis for a new­born? And you know, you might look at that and say, isn’t that so plucky and clever of this man to do that. And I’m like no, it’s in a whole array of pros­thet­ics. Let it live there. And let it actu­al­ly change who you are, and your rela­tion­ship to the help you’re get­ting with the tools that you use every day. And if we see that con­nec­tion and that con­tin­u­um, then we see each oth­er a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent­ly. I mean I’m count­ing on that kind of…the refram­ing work of the objects. But I’m glad that you kin­da got me there.

I’m just look­ing at the time. It seems like maybe we should cross over into tak­ing some ques­tions, do you want to do that now?

Young: Absolutely. So, Jennifer asks, What do you think of the idea that because of the risk of COVID, we are all experiencing—and not to make light—an ambu­la­to­ry anx­i­ety that has res­o­nance with the expe­ri­ence of dis­abil­i­ty, unsure how to move around oth­ers on a side­walk, unsure if one can use the door han­dle to open a door safely.” 

Hendren: Yeah, very much so. And if you look at Alice Wong… So Alice’s book is here. I’ve got it with my oth­er ones. I’m in like a fam­i­ly tree of won­der­ful dis­abil­i­ty books that have come out this year, and Alice is the edi­tor of this one. Alice has been say­ing now through­out COVID that dis­abled peo­ple are a kind of ora­cle for the moment. Not hap­pi­ly so, but turns out in point of fact they are. So in oth­er words, dis­abled peo­ple have had to think for a long time about immu­ni­ty, about expo­sure, cer­tain­ly about the rel­a­tive friend­li­ness of the built envi­ron­ment and their rela­tion­ship to oth­er peo­ple. So Alice offers us that metaphor, sort of like these are best resources. 

I actu­al­ly think that’s true in gen­er­al. It’s acute­ly appar­ent right now, but I do think that dis­abled peo­ple— In ten years of doing research and col­lab­o­ra­tions and being men­tored, I’ve learned to see dis­abled peo­ple as doing the most cre­ative work that is also the most urgent work of body meet­ing world. And I think it’s real­ly crit­i­cal to keep both of these things close­ly togeth­er, right. So in oth­er words, we can say oh well, dis­abled peo­ple are ora­cles and there­fore it’s real­ly urgent because we feel 2020 is quite urgent. But I want peo­ple to nev­er for­get the deep cre­ativ­i­ty, the cre­ativ­i­ty of that. Of reshap­ing the built world. So if you’re walk­ing around in your neigh­bor­hood and you’re think­ing right now about what are restau­rants doing to kin­da spread out into the street, and what’s gonna make a friend­lier city for all of us, and what about tele­health that’s now get­ting for­ti­fied a more robust and peo­ple been ask­ing for that for a long time. Ask your­self if you could employ that same gen­eros­i­ty and also attribute the cre­ativ­i­ty— not just the urgency but both of those things togeth­er. And point oth­er folks to this long his­to­ry and say dis­abled peo­ple have done it before. They have been here and done that, right. And it’s not a mat­ter of being just inclu­sive and not for­get­ting those folks. They are the first experts we should call on. So, you’re absolute­ly right. There’s a connection. 

Young: We have anoth­er ques­tion from Sophie, who asked, Are there spe­cif­ic coun­tries that are clos­er to real­iz­ing your ide­al world built for all bod­ies? And where does the US stand in com­par­i­son to achieve­ments in this area rel­a­tive to oth­er countries?”

Hendren: Oh my good­ness. I don’t know that one could gen­er­al­ize from coun­tries because…right, dis­abil­i­ty gets at the very notion, the very cul­tur­al notion of liv­ing with assis­tance from one anoth­er. So think about how dif­fer­ent the United States is. Its kind of orga­ni­za­tion around nuclear fam­i­lies as opposed to extend­ed fam­i­lies, which is much more the norm, right. And the way that old­er peo­ple, old­er adults and old­er fam­i­ly mem­bers are treat­ed all of the world. I mean the West is the vast excep­tion in uti­liz­ing nurs­ing homes, for instance. So just on those grounds alone we’d find infi­nite vari­ety and we’d never— 

I mean, I will say in the treat­ment of old­er adults it’s pret­ty clear the US is not doing a great job, right. So I think we could sort of…if we’re gonna say a blan­ket kin­da thing, we’ve nor­mal­ized sort of the man­age­ment and hous­ing of old­er adults in a way— And I under­stand why peo­ple do it. It’s a con­se­quence of indus­tri­al­iza­tion, and this kin­da fore­clos­ing around the nuclear fam­i­ly and so on. Nonetheless, right, if you look almost any­where else you’ll see a rich­er life in terms of aging. 

But you know hon­est­ly, in my own trav­els I see some cities that get it real­ly right when it comes to streets. Other places in terms of spe­cial edu­ca­tion do incred­i­bly sophis­ti­cat­ed work. It’s just too vast to say. But I guess I would just offer that good ideas hap­pen in a lot of places, and here’s again where I live in that ten­sion between the research lab and the pol­i­cy kin­da think tank, and also the indus­try kin­da dri­ven ideas that arrive for us, from lots of sources, in lots of forms, iter­a­tive and infi­nite in variety. 

Young: I’d like to encour­age all the lis­ten­ers just to con­tin­ue to ask ques­tions. These are great. An anony­mous attendee, thank you, asks, What about when a body meets the nat­ur­al world?” I think that’s inter­est­ing. It says specif­i­cal­ly the nat­ur­al world. Is the nat­ur­al world cre­at­ing mis­fits?” I think you know, from the man-made world to the nat­ur­al world. I think it’s an inter­est­ing dis­tinc­tion, so inter­est­ing. Any nat­ur­al design lessons to learn from?” 

Hendren: Yeah, inter­est­ing. I mean this is where it sort of goes back to… You know, there’s a rea­son why…sort of think­ing way way back and kind of like how do we rec­og­nize a human, that tool use is—not the only… There’s social­i­ty and oth­er kinds of things that we would mark at the sor­ta key moments of ancient human life. But tool uses one of them because why? We need just a sharp edge to actu­al­ly manip­u­late reeds for weav­ing, and the ani­mal food that we would’ve eat­en in our bod­ies, and mak­ing fire, right. So in oth­er words the body, as I say an intro­duc­tion, is prob­a­bly nev­er not extend­ed? I mean, we could almost— I mean, philoso­phers argue this stuff way more deeply than I’m going to right here. But we could say that it’s almost unthink­able that you would not need a tool to ampli­fy your reach and your grasp and your engage­ment with the nat­ur­al world? Totally. Certainly the built world. So we know that that’s kind of in our DNA and in our bones. 

And what was the sec­ond part of the ques­tion, Forest? 

Young: Any nat­ur­al lessons to learn from? 

Hendren: Natural lessons to learn. Oh, that’s such a good ques­tion. For how we… Yeah, I mean… Maybe this just goes back to some of the low-tech tools that I pro­file in the book in dif­fer­ent chap­ters, mean­ing there’s a kind of— I went to vis­it at the Harvard archive some ancient ancient tools to take a look at like, how do we rec­og­nize you know, just a basic mal­let and a sharp edge carved out of a rock. To see the dig­ni­ty and real­ly the techne, the tech­nol­o­gy that’s there in all of our stuff. So we can learn in the sense that we can say if we’ve always been doing this, then it does­n’t mat­ter if it’s my pen or my smart­phone, but I am get­ting help. And in my book the peo­ple whose design and dis­abil­i­ty I’m chron­i­cling, their tech is called assis­tive” tech­nol­o­gy. As though this thing [holds up cell­phone] is not assist­ing me in every nuanced way every day, right. And these read­ing glass­es, my very favorite object in the world. So in oth­er words, if we see our­selves on that big plane, the big sweep of his­to­ry, and also that our fun­da­men­tal­ly human state includes needs, and assis­tance, then let’s make all of our tools actu­al­ly vis­i­ble and uni­fy­ing. Let’s just call it what it is instead of rank­ing and order­ing who’s got the cool tech, and who’s a cyborg sor­ta futur­ist, and who’s using assis­tive” tech­nol­o­gy. This does­n’t does­n’t help us in build­ing a col­lec­tive pol­i­tics around human lives. 

That was a…long answer. 

Young: It was a good ques­tion. So thank you anony­mous attendee. Another per­son asked, How do we train our­selves to look at the built world crit­i­cal­ly?” So Sara, how did you devel­op this abil­i­ty to look at the world around you and to say, Hm, I won­der if this needs to be this way,” ulti­mate­ly towards mak­ing the world a bet­ter place. 

Hendren: Yeah, what a good ques­tion. You know, I think I learned in a very acute way when my son Graham, who’s 14 now, was a baby and he imme­di­ate­ly qual­i­fied for phys­i­cal ther­a­py, occu­pa­tion­al ther­a­py, speech ther­a­py, all kinds of things. And I learned and… I was with him at the park with him on my hip and peo­ple were ask­ing me, fair­ly reg­u­lar­ly, whether I got test­ed in preg­nan­cy. Like peo­ple feel a kind of per­mis­sion and enfran­chise­ment, when he was that little—and he was right there with me, say­ing like, Didn’t you get test­ed?” you know, like how are you not per­form­ing the sort of rit­u­als of preg­nan­cy. And I would think like…real­ly?

And then we would go to the ther­a­pist’s office, and there would be all this won­der­ful gear, or you all these toys and things. So at the phys­i­cal ther­a­pist for a baby, you use all these boun­cy balls and these lit­tle foam mats and all the kinds of con­vivial tools, in Ivan Illich’s term, for play. And I thought you know, it’s so inter­est­ing to me how the sto­ry of who Graham is is just pre­ced­ing him. Like peo­ple are mak­ing up sto­ries about him all the time. And I know that these objects are the prod­uct of human deci­sions that are also pro­ceed­ing from ideas about who he is. And I know bet­ter, because he’s in my life, you know. Here’s this sin­gu­lar human, and he was just being mapped by a diag­no­sis, right. And oth­er iden­ti­ties, folks know this well, right, the kinds of iden­ti­ties that oth­er peo­ple are imput­ing to you because you’re walk­ing down the street.

So, that was a way of under­stand­ing the mal­leabil­i­ty of the built world. But I will also say, being a kin­da artist and human­ist type work­ing in an engi­neer­ing school, I’ve nev­er met peo­ple more con­vinced of the mal­leabil­i­ty of the world than engi­neers and design­ers. Because they’re in love with the phys­i­cal laws of the uni­verse, and they teach me about it all the time. So when you’re with engi­neers, they will always say This does­n’t have to be that way.” And I would just say to you, no mat­ter what field you’re in, that remem­ber always always always that despite the black box of this thing, [holds up cell­phone] it’s not actually…it did­n’t arrive fully-formed. Everything, every­thing is shaped by human deci­sions. Which also means that we could back away from it and unmake those very same— Now, it’s not easy. But it can be done. And if you even just build your own fur­ni­ture some­time, you start to see like, this is how stuff is put togeth­er, with inten­tion and deci­sion­mak­ing. And it means that the plu­ral­i­ty is also in front of you. It could be oth­er­wise. So that is one way to do it. 

And read­ing, too, about the pop­u­lar his­to­ry of design, you just take seri­ous­ly con­tin­gency and plu­ral­i­ty, right. It did­n’t have to be this way. And ordi­nary peo­ple, I want to say with this book, should feel the deep stakes in being able to make a claim even if you’re not the expert, right. Like I was quak­ing in my boots arriv­ing at an engi­neer­ing school not know­ing a lot about the laws of physics, and yet stak­ing a claim as a civic actor, par­tic­i­pa­to­ri­ly, because I need­ed a bet­ter built world. So, when you see some­thing wrong, or some­thing that’s a mis­fit, you can just as a civic actor raise a hand and say, I’m invest­ed. Why? Because I’m a human with a body in the world.” Okay. Let’s start there. Where are the seams and the cracks? Who might I talk to to move forward. 

Young: Thank you. So Meredith asks—you’re gonna love this one, Sara. Would love to hear about the process of writ­ing the book. Was it hard? What was surprising?”

Hendren: How many ways can I say? Yeah, it was—and God bless my edi­tor Becky Saletan at Riverhead Books for hang­ing in there with me. It was real­ly hard it was a book that taught me a lot about writ­ing, on a steep learn­ing curve. I real­ly did­n’t know— All books arrive in a dif­fer­ent man­ner, I’m told by writ­ers, and this one was very much a grass­roots, ground-up. So I don’t even know… I knew that I want­ed to do the scale of pros­thet­ics and fur­ni­ture and rooms and streets, but it took me forever to fig­ure out oh, call it one object: Limb, Chair, Room, Street, Clock. Like just the sim­plic­i­ty of that took for­ev­er. Like final­ly, I’m gonna run every day doing my workin’ it out. And I final­ly in the mid­dle of that emailed my edi­tor and said, Oh I think I know what we need to do.” It took us forever to find the title, right, because it is a book about design and dis­abil­i­ty but nei­ther appears in on the title because we real­ly want­ed for peo­ple to under­stand ful­ly that this is not a top­i­cal book in those spe­cial­ty ways but real­ly invites you in a dif­fer­ent way. 

And it just is like all writ­ing is rewrit­ing. And I just ruth­less­ly cut some real­ly good sto­ries and things that I just felt like, the nar­ra­tive need­ed to hang togeth­er. And I found that I loved it. I real­ly did, and…I just can’t express to you how long it takes to write a rea­son­ably short book. That was the oth­er thing I was quite deter­mined to do. So it’s 200 and change but it takes a long time to whack away at it. 

But also I’m mar­ried to a doc­u­men­tary film edi­tor and pro­duc­er, and he thinks about sto­ry all the time. And so he would say to me, We need more scenes here,” like, Where’s the voice of the per­son.” You know like, he real­ly coached me on all that stuff too because he does it every day, so it was real­ly fun. It was real­ly fun, look­ing back at it now. But in the ear­ly stages it was real­ly hard.

Young: There’s a relat­ed ques­tion, Sara, from Gracie. Sara, did you have a par­tic­u­lar audi­ence in mind when writ­ing the book? If so, did it change at all between the ini­tial idea and publishing.” 

Hendren: Yeah. So, I think I have sort of sev­er­al audi­ences in mind, but I did start out at the very very begin­ning think­ing it would be a lit­tle bit like a blog that I ran for sev­er­al years between 2009 and 2015, which is cov­er­ing kind of pros­thet­ics. It’s a blog called Abler; hav­ing a lit­tle archiv­ing issue right now but it’ll be back online momen­tar­i­ly. And in that I was cov­er­ing kind of like well, the lat­est gad­getry and also, come over here and think about dis­abil­i­ty stud­ies and dis­abil­i­ty rights. And it was a way of doing that, and I think I thought the book would pro­ceed from those same ideas. 

But the more I read in dis­abil­i­ty stud­ies the more I real­ized design is actu­al­ly just a real­ly inter­est­ing, vivid, res­o­nant path­way to these ideas, right, which is about in inde­pen­dence and inter­de­pen­dence. The uni­ver­sal­i­ty of assis­tance. The mir­a­cle of adaptation—tech or no tech, right. It’s the body, it’s the adap­ta­tion that’s real­ly excit­ing there. 

Then I fig­ured out oh right, of course. Design is a way to dis­cov­er these things, and peo­ple actu­al­ly need to be walked through those things to help make those connections. 

And I am imag­in­ing yes, a kind of tech and design read­er, in the sense of peo­ple who read about pop­u­lar sci­ence and peo­ple who just are sort of like, they’re inter­est­ed in tech for its own sake and they would like to be shown a dif­fer­ent of kin­da think­ing about it. So I am think­ing of that read­er for sure. 

And also I’m real­ly pas­sion­ate about ordi­nary peo­ple, as in the answer to the ques­tion before. Ordinary peo­ple see­ing their own stakes in design and not think­ing like oh, here’s a like, expert with cool glass­es who can com­ment on mod­ernist archi­tec­ture. It’s not that, it’s just like, all your stuff, all your liv­ing stuff, right. Engineering is fun­da­men­tal­ly applied and so is design. It’s the wed­ding of util­i­ty and sig­nif­i­cance; that’s John Heskett’s ele­gant for­mu­la­tion. So what that means is we all have stakes in it. So I want­ed that read­er who is kin­da curi­ous about the built world (there it is in the title) to sort of say, Oh. Yeah. That belongs to me too.” So the ideas in design the­o­ry that are there are… I try to speak in the most plain-spoken ver­nac­u­lar so that you feel like oh yeah, yeah me too. 

And then again it’s a lot of sto­ries that are there for the rea­son that we always read sto­ries, right. Our hard-wiring is to read the sto­ries of oth­ers because of course we are then being read by their sto­ries. We are ask­ing our­selves what hap­pens when my life looks a lit­tle bit like this?” or What hap­pens when my loved ones go through this? What are the resources that would be avail­able to me?” And always, non­fic­tion or fic­tion, oth­er pro­tag­o­nists? are the text for our inner lives. It’s cer­tain­ly true for me and I hope it is for you in the way that folks have done so in this book. 

Young: Great. A good ques­tion from David—hey David. How do you see this work impact­ing cur­rent ADA standards?”

Hendren: Well, my hope is—I mean a lot of us in dis­abil­i­ty and design find to our cha­grin that the ADA is often treat­ed by design­ers and indeed in design schools as a com­pli­ance mat­ter? So in oth­er words, here is your genius vision; make sure you run it through these specs so that you don’t vio­late any laws and there­fore get sued. Rather than a moment to say whoa, what’s the oppor­tu­ni­ty here? What are alter­nate forms of mobil­i­ty that might change the very idea of the build­ing itself? How can I resist the temp­ta­tion to slap a ramp on like an appendage, and start from a kind of—what we think of as a non-normative” expe­ri­ence, but again that curb cuts show us is not actu­al­ly non-normative at all. And indeed, how can built space just keep being friend­lier for these bod­ies which are not built of con­crete and steel. They are flesh, porous organs, right. So, how can we start with bod­ies, real bod­ies, and let that actu­al­ly be—this is where I men­tion the cre­ativ­i­ty and the urgency and I want peo­ple to hang on to that. Man do we need that injec­tion of cre­ativ­i­ty also at the lev­el of ADA. For folks who are plan­ners and folks who are in school. And maybe again, Forest, just to call back. It feels like a ped­a­gog­i­cal moment, you know. If in your train­ing you are taught to think like wait, pause, this is actu­al­ly an oppor­tu­ni­ty and an open­ing, not just a clo­sure on our design. But there’s still a lotta…I think Amy [?], schol­ar, calls it com­pli­ance knowl­edge or com­pli­ance know­ing, right. That it’s just a whole field of like okay, just make sure that I’m not gonna be sued, instead of the invi­ta­tion some­thing bigger. 

Young: Great. And this is our last ques­tion. We have a tremen­dous amount of ques­tions and just want to acknowl­edge I’m all those who asked ques­tions that we weren’t able to address in the time that we have but this is part of an ongo­ing, great and rich dia­logue. Awista asked, What’s the role of pub­lic insti­tu­tions in shap­ing how one’s body meets the world? We can eas­i­ly think of fail­ures of pub­lic pol­i­cy, but what are some of the suc­cess­es? In oth­er words, how do we think about bod­ies that live in soci­eties with demo­c­ra­t­ic ideals and the extent to which those val­ues have hon­ored those needs?”

Hendren: Yes, Awista that’s a great ques­tion. It’s a big one, too. I want to just say that one of the rich­est ideas that came to me in the writ­ing of this book, through Sarah Williams-Goldhagen, is an idea of a built space as an action set­ting. So whether we’re talk­ing about a room that tells you what to do in it—so think about a cathe­dral ver­sus a cafe­te­ria. You know imme­di­ate­ly the kinds of behav­ior, what you should do with your body, how you should feel in that space. Because the action set­ting is send­ing you it’s cues. Who can be here, right. What all can you do? How friend­ly is it, how noisy, how loud? What is the pur­pose of this? 

So, action set­tings are what I often think of when we think about civic spaces. Not just the pub­lic street, which becomes the pub­lic sphere—being in pub­lic, and again that has to do with curb cuts but also like Gallaudet and get­ting on the col­lege cam­pus. Action set­tings in the street itself, but also at the end of the book I invoke Danielle Allen in the scene of a school, a pub­lic school—high school, and the ser­vice work that these young adults with dis­abil­i­ties are doing to shore it up. I mean in the most prac­ti­cal terms. They are repaint­ing its doors, they are mak­ing it live­ly and worth being there for those young peo­ple. And pub­lic edu­ca­tion is sure­ly one of our most impor­tant demo­c­ra­t­ic institutions. 

And I real­ized that you could think of the school, and per­haps the vot­ing booth, and the pub­lic plaza—the ever shrink­ing tru­ly pub­lic plaza, as action set­tings. How can they be action set­tings? So in their lit­er­al phys­i­cal­i­ty but also in the civic mes­sages that they send. Who can be here? What can you do here? What can you not do here? Who decides, and who knows? 

But I was so moved by this group of teenagers in that pub­lic school, doing the most prag­mat­ic work, and just the scene of what that pub­lic school was doing. And this pub­lic school, Brighton High here in Boston, has like a class­room that’s a whole store, for free, for stu­dents who need canned goods and oth­er kinds of toi­letries and things for their house. I mean doing the pub­lic work of care, fun­da­men­tal­ly. And I loved think­ing about that in a dif­fer­ent way as an action set­ting. I think it’s use­ful for all of us. I hope that answers a lit­tle bit. 

Young: Fantastic. So we are at time. And I just want­ed to use this moment one, to thank you Sara for this won­der­ful book. It truly—it’s not only cap­ti­vat­ing but it’s trans­for­ma­tive. It was real­ly an awak­en­ing for me, and so I’m grate­ful for you for that. Thank you. And also to New America for putting this event togeth­er and all the peo­ple that have been assis­tive in field­ing the ques­tions for all the par­tic­i­pants who asked such rich and provoca­tive ques­tions here, and also those we did­n’t get to address. So thank you all.

Further Reference

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