Designing for Interdependence

A great deal of modern American rhetoric from certain groups paints complete self-sufficiency as the ideal. This rhetoric is built on the false notion that people living in modern American society are not necessarily reliant on others for day-to-day living. To the contrary, much of this society is built on interdependence. It is likely that we do not personally build our own roads, grow all our own food, or manufacture all of our own belongings. We might seek medical help from doctors, automotive help from mechanics, or electrical help from electricians. We hope that some stranger will come by with a pair of jumper cables when we’re stranded in the grocery store parking lot.

However, much of this interdependence is so normalized that it has become invisible. People with disabilities, when asking for assistance beyond what has become explicitly normalized, make this interdependence more expressly visible. In “Examined Life,” philosopher Judith Butler and artist/disability activist Sunaura Taylor describe and dismiss the “false idea that the able-bodied person is somehow radically self-sufficient.” Taylor goes on to describe how she might ask for assistance at a coffee shop. This request is more visible than the “invisible” assistance most people already receive at the shop; the barista already assists customers with putting the sleeve and the lid on the cup, but this act of assistance is normalized, and thus made invisible. Were our existing interdependence placed further to the forefront of society’s collective mind, the differing needs of others along the spectrum of ability and disability would correctly seem like the natural extensions of our existing interdependence.

Likewise, all designed objects and interfaces innately provide accommodations for someone. Issues of accessibility in designs are (unfortunately) still frequently considered to be an afterthought or an “extra,” rather than a natural extension of existing accommodations. Curb cuts, as Sunaura brings up, are really important for people using mobility aids, like wheelchairs or walkers, but also improve daily life for elderly people, parents with strollers, people with grocery carts, and children on scooters. Taylor notes the disability-friendly built environment of her city, which leads to more people with disabilities out and about and able to participate in society. The designed environment, in this sense, dictates not only who has access to participate, but also who is visible and accepted. Taylor describes disability as having two parts — one the literal disability as it is felt, and another imposed by society, either socially or through what is designed. Consistently pushing the boundaries of what accommodations are normalized leads not only to greater social acceptance of those who need them, but an acknowledgement of how greatly society benefits from them, across the spectrum.