Easy Chair — From the January 2015 issue

Universal Use

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In the 1950 film The Men, Marlon Brando in his first movie role plays Ken, a paraplegic World War II veteran struggling alongside other vets with spinal-cord injuries to learn to use wheelchairs, build their upper-body strength, and come to terms with what they assume will necessarily be diminished lives. Ken’s fiancée, Ellen, played by Teresa Wright, is sure they can put their old life together, but Ken breaks with her out of rage and self-hatred. In the final scene, chastened, he’s returned home to her. He pulls his wheelchair out of his car — folding wheelchairs were fairly new then — and pushes himself up the front walk, only to come to a stop against a step as an ominous chord plays on the sound track. We see a close-up of his stuck front wheels. Ellen comes to Ken and with gentle compassion asks whether he needs help. “Please,” he says, humbly. And she helps him get his chair over that step, and the next. The message is clear: with humility and love, disability can be dealt with, despite social, personal, and material obstacles.

What’s obvious to a viewer watching the film today is that if they just got rid of those steps, the house could be entered with no particular necessity for moral growth.

When I was young, in the 1950s, people using wheelchairs were almost never seen in public, in the streets, at events. Not seeing them didn’t seem odd to me. If I had questioned myself about it (I didn’t) I would have formed an image of a typical disabled person as largely housebound, naturally marginalized. But just about then, people with disabilities were ceasing to accept such isolation. To them the reason for their absence from the public scene was obvious: the built world was for the most part impossible for disabled people, in chairs or otherwise, to use.

Survivors of the era’s polio epidemics who spent formative periods at Franklin Roosevelt’s Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, in Georgia, experienced what Reinette Donnelly, a resident of the institute, called a “stairless Eden.” “One of the things a person deprived of the customary use of his limbs comes to realize is how full of stairs the world is,” she wrote in 1932. To these polios — as they called themselves — Warm Springs made it clear that disabilities can disappear when barriers to social participation are removed and places, services, tools, and information are made accessible. The source of disability lay in large part, and sometimes entirely, not in the bodies of disabled people but in the world they lived in. It was the world that needed to adapt.

The last of the Warm Springs polios and the disabled vets of another war — Vietnam — were at the center of a movement for inclusion that would put forth a version of this claim: As persons with equal rights under the Constitution, they could not be arbitrarily kept from places and services that others freely used. The major gains of the movement for disability rights were won late in the era in which rights for women and African Americans were also won, and by the same means: political pressure, lawsuits, and direct action. As one activist said, “Black people don’t want to be made to sit in the back of the bus. We just want to be able to get on the bus.”

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in any program of, or funded by, the federal government. When Joseph Califano, the secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, wavered on implementing the act’s radically thoroughgoing provisions, a series of nationwide protests forced him to change his mind. Section 504 produced visible changes in our shared environment; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 extended the rights guaranteed under 504 to the states and the private sector, among other accomplishments.

The most obvious barriers that faced mobility-impaired people are largely gone now, at least in urban parts of developed countries. After some initial resistance — “Why should I have to adapt my building for people in wheelchairs? They never come in here anyway” — accessible entries and curb cuts not only have become common but have also blended into their environments. The majority of those who use them are not people in chairs, for whom they’re necessary; they are parents with strollers, seniors uncertain of their footing, skateboarders: people for whom the modifications are convenient. Anyone under thirty could easily think they’ve always been there. The environment has been changed for the better, for all.

These largely unexpected consequences — universality and invisibility — became central to the theories of design that succeeded the original projects of “barrier-free” and “accessible” spaces. Universal design considers not just the specific needs of certain people but the general needs of everyone, in the built environment and everywhere. There should be a way, the thinking goes, for a street, a building, an Internet site, a TV show, a can opener, a phone, a gym, a newspaper, a bus or train, to be usable by all, without particular users having to be specially provided for.

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October 2019


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