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What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World
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What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World

4.40  ·  Rating details ·  480 ratings  ·  68 reviews
Named a Best Book of the Year by NPR and LitHub

A fascinating and provocative new way of looking at the things we use and the spaces we inhabit, and a call to imagine a better-designed world for us all.

Furniture and tools, kitchens and campuses and city streets--nearly everything human beings make and use is assistive technology, meant to bridge the gap between body and wo
Hardcover, 240 pages
Published August 18th 2020 by Riverhead Books
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Average rating 4.40  · 
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Jan 16, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2021, recs
thoughtfully explores how we might unmake and remake the design of the world using cutting-edge technology so that spaces are more inclusive of people with disabilities. journeying from the small and bodily to the large and abstract, Hendren moves from surveying the promises of prosthetics to considering how furniture, private spaces, and the public sphere might be more inclusively designed to imagining more equitable ways of measuring time. the book’s full of insight and especially great is Hen ...more
Aug 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
4.5 stars. I love this book, and I'd love to see expansions of her ideas on disability, bodies, and infrastructure by disabled people. ...more
Juhi Bansal
Oct 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I heard the audible version as I did not want to wait for the Kindle version to release in India.

I have worked with Sara briefly in the past and I know she has a very wholesome approach to both design and diability but in her book she takes it several notches up. A well researched book which asks some very pertinent questions- what does disability mean? Each one of us becomes disabled at some point whether due to a temporary injury or old age. What does it mean in terms of the built world then?
Oct 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Any one who has a body and is curious should read this book! It discusses how we interact with the world and how we adapt to it. This book isn’t about disabilities but is about abilities and adaptations. It opened my eyes to so many new perspectives. Should be required reading for all humans!
Dec 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
This is a remarkable book. It offers a smart contribution to the political theory of disability, but unlike so much academic work, it's beautifully and accessibly written. One of its many contributions is the discussion of the unavoidable tension between universal accessibility (e.g., the idea of universal design) and varied specificities of bodies' needs. Hendren isn't the first one to recognize that tension, of course, but her way of writing about it feels novel and eye-opening even for someon ...more
Cavar Sarah
Dec 09, 2021 rated it really liked it
A very solid book for those new to disability studies/the disability justice movement(s). That said, it was definitely written with abled people explicitly in mind, and I wasn’t a fan of the subtle Othering of potential disabled readers throughout.
David Drummond
Mar 27, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Delightfully well written, this book offers a glimpse at what a wide variety of bodies - from those with hearing impairment, ALS, prosthetics, or cognitive impairment - can do. Beyond it's many vignettes that reveal a world not often considered, its strength is how it humanizes all of us in the same reality: we all currently or will someday face the limitations of our bodies. That loss of physical function and how we embrace or cope with it, is a defining part of the human experience, and one th ...more
Jun 04, 2021 rated it really liked it
I've never read a book quite like this; what it excels at is challenging the reader to rethink assumptions, not just about disabled people but about our own discomfort and unrealistic/idealistic/romanticized psychological relationship with ability, disability, adaptability, and that at some point, we transgress between these worlds or will eventually. My years working with additional needs students was a direct education in grasping that the disabled were being far more patient with the neurotyp ...more
Jan 23, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I did not anticipate how compelling this book would be. This book is a love letter to the author's disabled son, a primer on disability and design theory, and an exploration of the high and low tech tools that are essential for any human to adapt to their environment. I've been finding these kinds of practical utopian books quite appealing as of late. We need new and better ways to imagine a more just future and this book is certainly a step in the right direction. ...more
Jul 18, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This book looks at the ways the built environment can be reimagined and made accessible, and some of the creative people who are doing so. Bodies shift and change and move in and out of abilities. An accessible and creatively built environment helps everyone (but also, even if it only helps a minority it would be worth it, because everyone has the right to be a part of society).
Mar 29, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a nice primer on disability studies! A number of foundational ideas are explored wrt design, padded with a range of interesting real life examples. It felt more surface level explorations than in-depth treatments, it's not terribly intersectional, and it didn't get loudly anti-capitalist until the last chapter, but u know, pretty good pretty good. ...more
K.E. Goldschmitt
Aug 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sts
Really lovely book on disability, design, and public infrastructure. Sometimes parents of disabled kids do excellent work.
Christiana Myers
Oct 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I can't say enough good things about this book. The intro alone knocks it out of the park. Urban planning, engineering, art—it has it all. ...more
Oct 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
An interesting intersection on design and disability, new ways to look at the world, and new questions to ask around bodies and the world that surrounds us.
Harry Smith
Dec 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: library, 2020
Enlightening! At its best, I think, when the work connects the technologies and designs back to philosophies of why we have them in the first place.
Apr 08, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent read for any designers (or really anyone) who wants to get their feet wet/learn more about disability studies and inclusive design.

The stories were engaging and palpable. I particularly appreciated Hendren's reflexive approach; the brief snippets of their own thoughts and feelings mixed in while telling the rich, contextual misfit experiences provided me a safe space and encouraged me to reflect, break down my own ableist assumptions, and build humility.

The history on eugenics and our
Emma Murray
Mar 13, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Disability studies identifies two mental models that serve as useful contrasts for understanding these relationships between the body and the world. In a purely medical model, the body is the location of impairment, which suggests that the person with the impaired body bears the responsibility for it… A social model of disability, by contrast, invites you to widen the scenario from the body itself to include the stuff around it: the tools and furniture and classrooms and sidewalks that make it ...more
Anna Hawes
Feb 19, 2021 rated it really liked it
I thought I was decently aware of implicit design assumptions because of my engineering background but this book further opened my eyes to the bodies the world is designed for. The author took items like podiums, chairs, and clocks and gave examples of people who cannot use them the way they are designed and the workarounds and innovations they use instead. She mixed stories of individuals with larger history and context in a way that kept my interest as a reader. It helped to have individual st ...more
Oct 17, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Hendren closes with this question: “Which tools for assistance will we agree to owe each other?” This book is an excellent starting place for a relative rookie to the world of assistive/accessible design. Sara Hendren does a deft job weaving in stories, histories, and technologies that you may or may not have heard of and you may or may not have thought about. I found myself stopping often to look up the people, events, companies, etc. that she included. She then weaves it all together with prof ...more
Mar 28, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Very accessible book on accessibility. I am quite familiar with adaptive and inclusive design, yet I learned plenty of new things from the various stories and examples in this book.
Nov 04, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: best-audiobooks
Should be required reading for all designers.
Diane Henry
Sep 06, 2021 rated it really liked it
I really appreciated getting another view of the world, this time in how our bodies meet the built environment. I love learning to see things that were always in plain view. Made me think a lot about how I move through the world now and how my patients move through the world.
R. O.
Jan 24, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Thought provoking. The content and approach helps me imagine a better world and rethink my many assumptions. It has 5star impact despite at times being too academic or too detailed.
Michelle Morgan
Oct 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: what-i-read-2020
This was a quick read that hits squarely at the intersection of my professional interests (accessibility) and my academic ones (I did a PhD in American Studies and specialized in visual and material culture). So, in some ways, a lot of the background info and the theoretical positions weren't new to me. BUT- unless this is your field, this is a fantastic read-- effortlessly weaves the history of disability/disability studies into case studies of various ways we can reimagine our relationships to ...more
Jan 30, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, audible, 2021
I learned so much from this book!! And It is the kind of stuff I want to tell people about, and that always gets me excited, because:
a) it means it was good content
b) it was delivered in such a way that it stuck in my brain!

Really all you can ask for in non-fiction. Some people said you'd appreciate this book if you worked in a relevant field, but I don't find that a caveat to enjoy the book.

As Sara reminds us, we will all be disabled at some point to some degree in our lives - therefore it is
Feb 03, 2021 rated it really liked it
We will all live with disability at some point in our lives. Some folks just have to deal with it earlier than others. Sara explores how designers can shape our world to work better for all types of folks. I really liked the exploration of the tension between designing a solution for folks or designing a solution that folks can adapt. As a designer of digital things I feel this tension very strongly. How do we let people adapt the sites and apps we make?
Erhardt Graeff
Feb 27, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Disclosure: The author is a friend and a colleague. I have known her and her work for 10+ years. As part of the Awesome Foundation in Boston I helped select her Accessible Icon Project to receive a $1000 grant to print and distribute its graffiti stickers.

Though I know the author personally and have been excited for her fully realized thesis on disability and design, I am confident in saying this book deserves 5 stars for the last chapter alone. Hendren's reflection on how she came to appreciate
Jan 31, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: wish-list
This is a slim book that sliced open a curtain between how I saw the world and how I can see it now. Hendren was trained as an artist. Her first child has Down Syndrome, which led her to a fascination with all the tools and adaptive devices that could support her own kid's physical development--tools that so many use to navigate a world that was not built for them. Hendren became an engineer and now teaches adaptive design at the Olin College of Engineering.

Early in the book she summarizes a rep
May 05, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This book helped me express ways I've experienced the built world, both as a caregiver and as an able-bodied person who appreciates long walks and compassionate design. It gave me language for my own complicated and invisible relationship with disability.

I appreciate that Hendren was able to relate anyone to the experience of disability without drowning out the history of disability rights activism. She acknowledges everyone's misfit qualities and the friction that comes with trying to fit into
Apr 16, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I can not recommend this book highly enough. It is for everyone- especially a necessity for all engineering and design students/professionals. As a disabled human, who has a body that is at a mismatch with the built world, Hendren gave me an introduction to disabled scholars and ideas that radically changed how I view my disability and myself. Also, Hendren gives personal accounts of people with a wide array of disabilities and how they have adapted to meet the built world. It gave me unique ins ...more
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Sara Hendren is a humanist in tech—an artist, design researcher, writer, and professor at Olin College of Engineering outside Boston. Sign up for her newsletter at: http://sarahendren.substack.com. Her book What Can A Body Do? How We Meet the Built World explores the places where disability shows up in design, an inventive tradition of remaking our everyday tools and environments that carries the ...more

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“This familiar, comparative idea of normal is so common that perhaps it feels timeless and universal, but it wasn’t until around 1840 that the word was even used to describe human qualities in European languages. (Prior to that time, normal referred to being perpendicular or square, a technical term that would have been used, for example, by a carpenter.)” 2 likes
“In a social model [of disability], the interaction between the conditions of the body and the shapes of the world that makes disability into a lived experience, and therefore a matter not only for individuals but also for societies” 1 likes
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