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Monday, March 7, 2011

Weighing in on Space

When people, okay when women, visit my home I am made to feel as though I have failed home decorating 101. These unnamed women are always polite and diplomatic. They will will inevitably compliment my house as being tasteful, neat and clean but there is always a pause. This pause is followed by statements such as my home lacks a "woman's touch", the absence of window treatments, drapes or some other fashion failure. I don't mind this one bit. No woman lives in my house and it does lack a feminine touch. I am not exactly surely what that feminine touch means in terms of how a home looks but its absence is apparent. I must confess however I do not like living in my living room. I have what can only be deemed an ugly clinitron bed in my living room. On my very nice leather couch I have my medical dressings spread out. All the furniture is out of place and at night I wish my house and body would return to normal.

As I feel asleep last night I was truly bothered the way my house has been rearranged while healing from my wound. But as I began to feel sorry for myself I thought--knock it off. I am lucky to be in my home. A mantra I often repeat. So why did my temporary living arrangement bother me? The answer came to me this morning reading Tobin Siebers book Disability Aesthetics. Siebers attempts to redefine both disability and aesthetics. While much of the book was not to my taste in part because Siebers looks at much art which I have little interest in. One small section of Siebers book did hit home--here I refer to the section on "Hysterical Architecture". I have often been struck at how violently people react to accessible space. I have heard again and again how access and durable medical equipment is ugly. I have heard heated arguments about how access "mars" a building or is an "eye sore". It dawned on me that while i obviously reject such beliefs I have nonetheless incorporated them in my thinking. When I renovated my house I did not want the ramp to my home to be too visible. I did not want my bathroom to look like too medical even if it meant being inconvenienced. Part of this concern was financial. To sell a house it must look aesthetically pleasing. Access I have learned is rarely if ever aesthetically pleasing. What has struck me as an obvious problem is that access is "ugly", an "eyesore" because we do not value said access. Access when constructing a building always appears to be an after thought--something that must be forced into an already beautiful design because of the law. And we know many hate the law, especially the ADA. That pesky law bankrupts small business and costs schools a fortune.

Given the above I was struck by Siebers following observation:

It is as if the public interprets ramps, accessible doors, and signage for the disabled as symbols of disability that require a mustering of defense mechanisms. In no time, plants and flowers clutter wheelchair ramps, handicap signs are tucked away, and decorative rocks and wood chips block accessible walkways. Nature abhors a vacuum, and society treats handicapped parking spaces and accessible pathways as empty paces to fill: locales marked by accessibility inevitably become handy collecting points for trash, building materials, or delivery trucks (pp. 79).

Society is indeed very defensive. It is as though the mere presence of accessible entrances is an afront to the delicate sensibilities of society. The presence of the disabled body and hence access for that body is unwanted. Every person I know with a disability can relate to the Seibers quote above. We have all had experiences where the space for us has been violated. Trash in wheelchair lifts are a common problem. Snow plows dump snow in handicap parking. Delivery trucks block curb cuts and fill up handicap parking spaces. Handicapped seating is used to store extra chairs and supplies. Signs if present are obscure and often grossly wrong. The list of violations is seemingly endless to me. Indeed, violations in terms of equal access are the norm. When traveling I always assume problems will arise and sadly I am almost always correct. What all these seemingly minor violations indicate is that we people with a disability are not valued nor welcome. We are ugly, a reminder of all that can wrong, a tragedy even. I am not sure how to change this societal mindset when even I am guilty of incorporating it. I will thus cut myself some slack knowing that my wound will heal and my ugly bed will find its way into its proper place--my bedroom. So for now I remind myself to be content with my existence even if it does not exactly please me.


Jennifer Fitz said...

I do agree that many people are uncomfortable with obviously-accessible spaces, because of the overall discomfort with disability.

BUT, I think ugliness is something else. You can construct well-designed spaces, use harmonious materials, and put up elegant signage. Or you can have a beautiful-but-inaccessible building, and tack on the cheapest alterations available. Cheap, lousy design tells on itself.

And, re: space-stealing: part of it can be lack of use and convenience. The ramp up my (home) front door is more or less blocked right now. No one is using it, and there's a table I do need access to. In the competition, the item I'm using right now always wins. [And yeah, FYI my home is freqently not in condition to receive visitors, period. I clean the place up to suit the individual guest.]

--> That said, in a business setting, when you block the accessible entry, the message is pretty plain.

Becs said...

A friend of mine uses a power chair and doesn't bother going into any stores from October until the middle of January. Otherwise clear aisles are suddenly stacked with merchandise and there is no easy way to navigate through them. I think it isn't spite on the retailers' part but ignorance. No doubt the sales staff has been told all the merchandise must be displayed by a certain date.

At least that's what I'd like to think.

Assiya said...

I agree with Jennifer. Wheelchair accessible stuff is often built in a very sterile way, as a non-aesthetically pleasing after thought. It doesn't have to be. I think part of it is what we value, and what we value aesthetically. But wheelchair accessibility could be built to adhere more our aesthetic values.

Anonymous said...

Well, speaking as someone who's mere inches from an art history degree, which is just at the end of the semester, there's absolutely no valid art historical, nor architechtural, reason why accessible adaptions can't enhance the beauty of buildings. A stunning Neoclassical building, like those found at many fine universities, would be complimented by a lovely double colonnade in the appropriate Neoclassical style along the sides of a ramp. A truly talented architect could actually increase the beauty of a building by making it accessible, not “mar it irrevocably”. That only happens when the owners go for the cheap, hyper-utilitarian fix. Accessibility can be a beautiful thing. Why isn't it? Is there some big art shortage about which I'm uninformed?

Unknown said...

My pet peave is when I remove a chair at a table, cafe, classroom or a conference, and then go to get my food or whatever, someone puts the chair back while I am away. This is the epitome of invisible accommodations. But even so, others who do not need the "no chair needed" accommodation -- still can't tolerate the "missing chair" and seem to NEED to convert it back.
The corollary is when I join a circle. The only place available is the "opening". But even when I pull out a chiar to be "my seat" it will inevitably also become the "opening" that everyone uses.