Social Stigma by Design


One of the things that holds back accommodations for differences in abilities is the paradigms through which we see things. There are many ways we are constrained by past thinking, but perhaps none are more constraining than the thinking that goes into design of the material world. Where we live, tools we use, equipment we need, roads we drive and so forth began as an idea in the minds of designers. Those minds were shaped by the culture in which they developed.

Cultural values and cultural mores are embodied in designs. This accounts for the wide varieties of approaches to the same functional problems, which makes specific places seem to be living reflections of the people who have lived there. Many believe that variety is what makes the world a beautiful and interesting place to live and visit. As an avid traveler who enjoys new places, I count myself among those who appreciate that diversity.

But people being who they are, stereotypical, prejudicial and xenophobic tendencies can also become embodied in designs, and once there, they continue to limit the lives and movements of people long after the minds of their designers have died out.

Paradigms limit the thinking of new designs as well. Once embodied, designs become the way its always been, the box that needs to be out-thought. So without someone standing up and saying "That does not work!" these patterns are often repeated even in the absence of intent.

Building homes that are not visitable by almost everyone is a good example of a paradigm that should be shifted. We live longer as a population. With long life comes limitations on mobility and ability. The old paradigm of a home is not a norm written in stone. It is an idea based upon a level of knowledge and born in a particular culture that was ignorant of diversity. In the same way that side and back doors in southern downtown stores are throwbacks to the days when darker people were expected to use the other "entrance" and whites only were allowed to walk through the front door, homes that are not accessible to wheelchairs and other mobility equipment are throwbacks to a world that pretended that we are all similarly-abled. We now better about the color of people's skin and we should know better about the status of those who require technologies to assist them in life.

All people should be welcomed.

The passage of the ADA allowed the world (and those with limitations as well) to see that we have a vast diversity of abilities. There are some that even assert that the persons living with disabilities constitute the largest minority group. We are visible now in a way that the physical barriers would not let us be before.

The appropriate response to this visibility is visitability. Homes carry with them a stigmatization of those who are differently abled. The social stigma of difference is built right into the narrow hallways, the steps to the front door, the second floor bathrooms. A house becomes a home for many reasons. Among them is who is welcomed. Extended family members with disabilities, friends and co-workers with disabilities and someday, maybe even you may need that little extra shift to know you are welcomed.

As new homes are being built, it doesn't cost that much to shift the paradigm to make a home visitable. All we need is the will to do it.

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