Sara Hendren: It’s the power of that question that’s the engine of the book. Who IS the world designed for? And what can a body do? Well, it depends. It depends on bodies and it depends on the world.
My name is Sara Hendren. I received an Artist Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction from Mass Cultural Council in 2018. This is an excerpt from my book, What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World.
From What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World (Riverhead/Penguin Random House 2020), excerpted with permission
It was when Maya showed me the benches at Gallaudet University that I started to glimpse sound – the physical structure of it, the elastic bounce of its travel. My friends who are deaf have always told me that sound also belongs to them – that hearing people are forever getting it wrong to imagine deafness as a “silent world” – but the benches were the thing that made this idea vividly real. They were a feature in the design at the scale of rooms at Gallaudet, alongside a dozen other architectural choices that a hearing person could easily miss.
Maya had paused for a moment in our campus tour to point them out, standing in the middle of a big, airy common space lined with windows on three sides, the lobby of a dorm where many students study and socialize, alone or in groups. The benches serve as seating for nearby wood tables, sets that are interspersed with soft fabric chairs arranged 360 degrees around for discussion. “Wood is the best material for this kind of group seating,” she told me, and mimed lightly slapping the wood with her palm. The resonance of wood makes it reverberate when struck. Students sometimes tap or slap nearby surfaces to get one another’s attention or to call a group to order, she said, and materials like concrete or thick plastics tend to absorb the sound rather than scatter it productively.
Nearly all the students on campus, like Maya, are deaf or hard-of-hearing, so the materials and – room arrangements make a difference. The benches are where sound does its tactile work – not so much as noise, though it is that, too, but as vibration. Sound as a medium, as a force to harness and amplify or sublimate and send to the background – these properties and possibilities are what I understood tacitly about acoustics but had to see all over Gallaudet in person to really understand. It was one of many ways that I witnessed how deafness produces a distinct sensory ecology.
At Gallaudet, most communication between people on campus is in American Sign Language, or ASL. The campus was founded for deaf education in 1864 and is the only bilingual university of its kind, using both English and ASL in its curriculum but self-described as “a signing community” and a proud home for deaf culture. I had panicked briefly in the taxi there, remembering suddenly that I might have to ask for directions on campus without rudely assuming spoken English, and started to dredge up the ASL alphabet that was still in my manual memory from childhood. I also cued up a Notes app on my phone, for typing exchanges if necessary. But in the end, I found my way to my meeting place, right on time, and to Maya, my tour guide on a brilliant October Friday, who was from nearby Maryland and majoring in interpretation.
Even in jeans and a sweatshirt, Maya had the shy formality of a student on the job, tasked with reciting the facts and figures for an earnestly curious stranger. Maya and I formed a triad with our ASL interpreter, a bilingual graduate student who carefully chose her own positioning in space to be out of my visual field but easy for Maya to watch while also making eye contact with me.
Maya was patient with my dozens of questions, and, watching our interpreter and recalling protocols established with my deaf friends, I remembered to tap her lightly on the shoulder when I wanted to ask her something – a form of touch I might consider presumptuous with a stranger in American hearing culture. The three of us did our round-robin of communications while we traipsed about, indoors and out, looking at old-school plaques and statues along with technologically sophisticated classrooms.
Education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students has been around for a long time, of course, but there’s a new, or perhaps new-and-old, or perhaps renewed set of ideas about architecture happening at Gallaudet, which I had been reading about for years and finally went to see for myself. For students taking classes, holding club meetings, working and living there, the architecture – walls and furniture and doorways – is designed to support the deeply embodied, three-dimensional, complex social structures of sign. There are the wood benches – an old and commonplace technology, long used as a tool for somatic communication – but, all over campus, in wall heights and atrium structures and color choices, there was evidence of newer designs inspired by deafness: it’s called DeafSpace.
Gallaudet’s architecture emphasizes the particular capacities and assets of deafness, an utter reversal of even the most generous and well-meaning interpretation of “inclusion.” DeafSpace isn’t a plea to “make room” for deafness. It’s an unapologetic and joyous expression of the integrity and beauty of deaf experience, codified in a series of strong principles that inform the way the rooms here look and operate and feel.
Sara Hendren: I started writing as a way to get myself into practice, like into the lab and the studio. So then I spent some years making some things, collaboratively designing some things. And in the course of all of those years of both writing and making, I met all of these people, doing all of this other design work of their own. And I thought, people need to hear these, as stories.
The reason to write a book is when the complexity of a set of ideas just defies bullet points. You know? And can’t be encapsulated in an article. And I wanted to build a case, a kind of primer to both what design is doing in a very every day, just all the stuff around you, kind of way. Not like a specialist enterprise of architects with cool glasses. You know, doing their thing. But like, just the stuff you live with. But also to introduce people to what I have learned about the condition of disability and from the deep field of disability studies. And so, I think of myself as a kind of translator with this book. Both of like, look at your world with new eyes about design. You’re doing design, reader, all the time, even if you’re not in it, professionally. But also that disability is probably more near than you realize, and that it’s actually an invitation. It’s an invitation. You don’t have to think of it only as a kind of state of the body to avoid. And you don’t have to think of it as your sole experience. I’m trying to say to the reader, you’re actually part of something really big. And I needed to hear that, honestly. When I started parenting a child with Down Syndrome, I needed to hear not just other parents’ stories of their journey. Right? That’s one kind of story that I wanted to hear. But I wanted to hear like the big, big story about who else am I connected to? It’s not just about me and other parents of kids with Down Syndrome and not just about the Down Syndrome community. But people using wheelchairs, and people who are deaf, and people who are blind, using gear to adapt their bodies to the world all the time. That’s the bigger story that I have found so fascinating. So I wanted to see this book in the world to be able to hand to people and say, Well here’s a place to start.