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Sara Hendren—What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World

What Can a Body Do?

What Can a Body Do?


Sara Hendren
Riverhead Books, August 18, 2020, $27
Print ISBN: 9780735220003
E-book ISBN: 9780735220027
Audiobook ISBN: 9780593211571

Hendren reports:

After spending some years collaborating on accessible design projects and teaching students about prosthetics and assistive technology, I found myself wanting a book that would act as a primer to the inventive places where disability meets design.

Sara Hendren, photo by Freddie Hendren Funck

Sara Hendren, photo by Freddie Hendren Funck

I first imagined a "coffee table"-style book, full of images and commentary that would invite design and technology fans to these subjects. But I quickly realized that the tech would soon be outdated, while the foundational ideals that disability and design always raise would last much longer: How does "assistance" show up in all our lives, via eyeglasses or hearing aids, crutches and orthotic shoes, smart phones and pencils and scissors and chopsticks? And how does design for disability teach everyone, no matter the shape our bodies, about independence and interdependence; about the universality of our vulnerable, changing bodies; and about building lives worth living, with and without technology?

Those questions, raised by longtime scholarship in disability studies, became the engine of the book, though it took a very long, bottom-up process of finding and curating the right stories to report, and for the stories to then weave in such a way as to "produce" the ideas organically. (At a key moment, I read Louis Menand characterizing Jill Lepore's writing that way—worth aspiring to!)

The book is organized by objects to take the reader through all kinds of design: products, furniture, architecture, and urban planning—all written for the general-interest reader. It was key to have an editor who was sufficiently outside the topic but invested enough in its stakes to cast a skeptical eye on the work all the way through. My editor kept after me when the language was too "inside baseball," and I think it helped me achieve the beginner's-level prose I wanted. We deliberately left the words "design" and "disability" out of the title, precisely hoping to invite newcomers to these subjects and for them to see their own stakes in the stories.

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Hero image by Licht-aus from Pixabay.

February 1, 2022

Advance Copy

The path from idea to book may take myriad routes. The Advance Copy column, started in 2000 by NASW volunteer book editor Lynne Lamberg, features NASW authors telling the stories behind their books. Authors are asked to report how they got their idea, honed it into a proposal, found an agent and a publisher, funded and conducted their research, and organized their writing process. They also are asked to share what they wish they’d known when they started or would do differently next time, and what advice they can offer aspiring authors. Lamberg edits the authors’ answers to produce the Advance Copy reports.

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