Transdisciplinary Design

The Right to Spontaneity

Posted on November 17, 2013 | posted by:

I want to talk about accessibility. But I’m having trouble starting. The topic is fraught with frustration and not an insignificant amount of shame. I am Deaf. Since high school I’ve been slowly losing my hearing to the point where i have almost none left. The why is unimportant, the question is how do I maintain access to friends, family, the community I live in? Access and accessibility literally mean reachable. But, I wonder if the term is too technical and doesn’t go quite deep enough. For me the real issue is spontaneous interaction and a right to spontaneity.

Why spontaneity? Spontaneous interactions have been identified as essential to developing innovative, resilient, and sustainable communities. Spontaneity is rooted in our biology. In her work on system leverage points, Donella Meadows identified “spontaneous mutation” as essential to self-organizing systems beginning with our DNA.  Restrictions on spontaneity reduce not just biological resiliency but personal resiliency.

Spontaneous interaction is so embedded in the literature that subsequent authors don’t even bother to explain the significance of the act. When Enzio Manzini refers to the “spontaneous nature” of social innovation, he assumes this is an accepted fact. A quick review of publications from Fast Company to landscape architecture journals make the assumption that spontaneous interaction is a basic need , especially essential for designing collaborative environments. Typical of this form, Belinda Lanks writes of Allsteels’ new furniture line designed to encourage “casual, spontaneous interactions”:

This newfound appreciation for collaboration may very well have been sparked by the success of companies like Google that have created a culture of dorm-room-style interaction.

Let’s talk about you for a second, assuming “you” in this equation is a relatively able-bodied English-speaking adult living in the five boroughs. What have you done recently? How much planning went into it? Maybe you stepped in on a gallery talk, made a quick call about an appointment, caught a movie or maybe you got a good deal at the last minute at the TKTS booth? You followed a whim and took action.

Now imagine if you had a mobility, sight, or hearing issue. How easy would any of those things be? Do you know how close the nearest subway station with an elevator is? How about your building: is it a walk-up? How is the front door reached? Are you allowed to email your doctor? Was any speaking event you went to recently captioned or signed?

The roadblocks can sometimes seem endless. It’s easy for someone who faces them everyday to tire of fighting them and worse stop noticing them because they are so pervasive. I definitely fell into both of these responses. My life was narrowing and I wasn’t even considering it. Since starting school, I’ve been challenged to expand my world again. School challenges us to drink from the deep well that NYC has to offer, including a long list of great thinkers and great artists who perform and speak at a host of lectures, panel discussions, and conferences. Spontaneity allows you to take from the well of interaction, and to do so as the whim or opportunity arises. No planning required, in theory.

A few quick sketches: “We run on a shoestring budget; I’ll bring it up for next year.”  “We don’t have a budget, but when we do we’ll look into it.” “Is there some software we can give to our tech guys?” “That method violates our privacy policy.”

While I’ve been seen every excuse, these examples are just from this week: in connection to a panel discussion on collaboration at a gallery, upon inquiry into a big networking event, and from repeated attempts to email my health clinic. This list doesn’t even include the absurdity of going to an event with disabled actors that didn’t bother to make their spoken words accessible. Or another lecture that, bless their hearts, tried to have it signed but didn’t bother to test whether the signer could be seen or whether she could hear the speaker. How about the series of talks on the transition to our incoming mayor, including their website, which isn’t captioned? Or the variety of lectures and speakers that area universities that are only accessible by request?

I’ve even been mildly scolded for making last minute requests for accessibility by somewhat willing participants. “You need to give us warning!” No, you need to acknowledge that your job is to encourage spontaneity.

I don’t want to end on a note of frustration but to extend the above advise beyond those planning conferences and university disability services. We as designers are asked to consider a lot in our work, not the least of which are budgets, clients, users, and stakeholder interests. But as designers are being provoked to consider the environmental concerns as well as the social impact of their work, we need to continue that consideration to questions of spontaneity. Because it is through spontaneity where we can find a path to both accessibility and personal resilience.

We should all have the right to spontaneity.

(Photo by See-ming Lee 李思明 SML used through a Common Commons license.)