Birthday Wishes: Aging, Size Acceptance, Disabilities and Universal Design

Today I begin my 55th year on this planet. It will be a landmark year next birthday--that magical one where discounts and offers put me in a new marketing category. I have one more year of being middle-aged. Somehow, magically, one year from today, I will be transformed into an "early senior" as I've heard it described. Aging, as you can guess is on my mind today.

The last 4 years of my life have been transformative. I swear my biological clock said, you're 50 and now you break down. I take more medicines and supplements than I care to admit. I monitor my health in ways I never imagined. There are times when the hormones in my body render it alien to me. I keep thinking about how when you go through puberty the powers that be kindly offered classes and films to explain what to expect from a changing body. No such manuals and warnings have been easily available on the other end of the hormonal growth cycle. One of those "dropped threads" that it would be nice if it were more a part of our culture.

I've also been thinking a lot about size acceptance this week. Not that too many weeks go by that I don't think about that. After all, I live in a fat body and it is hard to escape that fact in day-to-day interactions. But this week I'm working on several projects that have brought ideas to the forefront. I've participated in some lively discussions. I've been editing a book that addresses some fundamental sociological questions on the topic. I've been planning a project for PDANation.

This week (July 26) marked the 21st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and I've read several things online about questions of accessibility. I always think about such questions around this time because of the anniversary. Last summer I was working on an article about this time, so it was way more prominent in my mind than this year.

The thing is that aging, size acceptance and disabilities have a lot in common. These categories are not front and center in our culture. They often go against the grain of the young, thin and able-bodied goals presented to us for consumption through anti-aging, weight-loss and fitness advertising that fills our daily lives.

These categories have something else in common: in a world designed with a particular kind of human being in mind, just moving around in space becomes problematic. Social geographers have noted that space is designed from cultural contexts. Certain assumptions are made before the design is even thought about and when the design of something is commissioned, some of the parameters are already set by culture and may not even be marked specifically. Assumptions are just made. People just know.

This is why Universal Design is so important. It questions these assumptions and pushes for more inclusive design. It goes to the heart of the matter and does so without dividing people up into categories. It makes the world work for everyone.

So this is my birthday wish: It is my hope that as the designers, engineers and architects of the world seek to create new things, they will be inclusive. This means that they will talk to a wide variety of people about what they need to make their lives work. It means that a wide variety of people will have a chance to be designers, engineers and architects of our spaces. It also means that the principals of universal design will become commonplace in our thinking, our building codes and our lives. That is my hope.


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