How Sara Hendren inspires a ‘joyful approach’ to accessible design

What does accessible design look like? 

That’s a question Sara Hendren explores in her critically acclaimed book, What Can A Body Do? How We Meet the Built World.

Hendren is an artist, design researcher, writer, and professor at Olin College of Engineering. Her work has been described as spanning collaborative public art and social design that engages the human body, technology, and the politics of disability. She also co-founded the Accessible Icon Project. 

Earlier this year, Hendren gave a workshop for Disability Advocates of Kent County (DAKC) while she was in West Michigan as a speaker for the Calvin University January Series.

‘Like-minded thinkers’

She recently spoke to us about her work with DAKC and her perspective on accessible design.

“What I love about Disability Advocates of Kent County is that they are just like-minded thinkers and want the most creative, joyful approach to making the world accessible,” Hendren says. 

The interactive workshop inspired attendees to practice inclusive design, using a disability lens from the outset to create spaces, products, and services that were easier for all users to access—regardless of ability. 

"Sara has an amazing knack for shifting the paradigm on accessibility," says Patrick Parkes, Business Development Coordinator of DAKC's Absolutely Accessible Kent project. "Too much of our country is still stuck on the idea that accessibility is simply a matter of legislative compliance, benefitting a seemingly small segment of the population. Sara's gentle, collaborative approach to design invites us all to think about disability as both a natural part of human diversity and a perspective worth designing from."    

Hendren's approach epitomizes the kinds of educational opportunities DAKC's Absolutely Accessible Kent project brings to the West Michigan design community each year. Absolutely Accessible Kent also offers consulting services, helping organizations and municipalities of all types and sizes optimize their accessibility at all stages of renovations and/or new building projects.     

Beyond the built environment,  DAKC also offers corporate and group trainings helping audiences to see disability as a key factor in their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. These trainings educate organizations’ staff and volunteers about the importance of inclusion for people with disabilities by offering practical advice in an interactive format.  

Hendren challenges the notion that there’s some ideal condition by which no one will have any problem accessing a space. 

“Sometimes that is possible — with curb cuts and closed captioning, for example — but a lot of the world is actually much more incremental,” she says. “A lot of it is much more where you're making something medium scale — more accessible than it was or accessible to a new set of users that had been excluded before.”

‘What if there were no constraints?’

Roughly 100 people took part in the workshop, including design students from Kendall College of Art and Design and Western Michigan University. Attendees were asked to design an accessible space with a limitless budget and one with budget constraints and other limitations.

“Sometimes I think our preconceived notions about what's possible get in the way of our best thinking, right? So we just try to spend a little time in that workshop mode to say, ‘What if there were no constraints?’ And, ‘If you can just name that ideal condition, is it maybe a little more possible than you thought it was?’ And ‘What would be the easiest and most affordable outcome?’ You never know where a good idea arises. So we wanted to get that all in the room,” Hendren says. 

The goal was to inspire people to bring their most creative and joyful, playful skill sets to the question of disability, which is also like a high-stakes human rights issue. 

“Sometimes, people get so focused on the human rights aspect, like the urgency of the matter, that they circumvent the playful kind of moment of thinking that ‘what if’ question, and that's the most powerful space, between the playful and urgent.”

Seeing the world differently

She credits her 17-year-old son, the oldest of her three children, for helping her see the world differently. He was born with Down syndrome. 

“Sharing life with him has been a longtime invitation to see disability in the world differently than I did before he was born, certainly. My background and training are in visual arts and design. I got interested in prosthetics and assistive technology as a result of watching my son use those things when he was really young, and it got me interested in the material culture of disability, just like all the gear, so I ended up teaching in an engineering school. It’s a mix of art and engineering,” Hendren says. 

Her design expertise has evolved from taking an art engineering approach to thinking about disability and design in the world. Her goal is to inspire her students, who are studying technology, to think creatively. She describes herself as a design researcher and writer rather than a designer.

Infinite solutions

She sees both disability and accessible solutions as infinite. The mistake is in a hierarchy of “better” or “best.” 

“It’s misguided to say ‘universal’ is automatically the destination of all design. I think of universal design as a set of principles and aspirations," Hendren says. "It's wonderful. It helps nourish and orient us when we're setting out to design something. But really, it's this infinite variety."

She praises DAKC for being a resource for people and communities to retrofit and edit their structures. Its newly opened Home Accessibility Center serves as a showroom to give contractors and families a place to learn how existing kitchens, bathrooms, and other rooms can be renovated to ensure those with disabilities can continue living at home.

This first-of-its-kind facility in West Michigan is part of DAKC's new location at the Special Olympics United Sports & Inclusion Center.

Disability Advocates’ mission is to eliminate systemic barriers and enhance programs so that people with disabilities can live the self-directed lives they choose. 

“We want people to think as specifically and creatively as we can together about that desirable future. Their site has this incredible model kitchen and bathroom for anybody who wants to go in there and say, ‘My family member had a stroke. We have to redo our house,’” she says. 

“Maybe they're thinking they’re going to have to move and leave everything they've known. The DAKC is right there to say, ‘No, you could bump a wall out by 4 feet and change everything in how your bathroom is accessed.’ And they built it so you can go see it with our own eyes. They're trying to be that kind of example for the community. They show people that an adaptive life is a life worth living.”

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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