When I stepped into the gallery LambdaLambdaLambda at La Maison de Rendez-Vous, Brussels, the first thing I saw was a green tufted woolen rug saying ALL ANY PARENT WANTS IS A HEALTHY BABY. The show Axioms of Care starts with a talk, the artist Sharona Franklin in conversation with curator Laura Stellacci, in which Franklin speaks about what the experience of a non-normative body is in a normative world. No architect, director of an institution, doctor, urban planner or any other human being has spoken so clearly about the harmful classifications of people and the resulting design decisions. Indeed: “Disability exists in society but not in a person.”
Sharona Franklin has physical disabilities and some cognitive barriers. She has mental health disabilities and chronic illnesses. But she does not have hearing or vision impairment. “I am also cis and white. So those are two barriers I do not have when I am accessing care and healthcare.” For Sharona, care really starts with access to healthcare, to employment and to education. These are three factors some of us take for granted. “Accessing education was my biggest barrier as a child. I was not allowed to study what I wanted, I was put in segregated classrooms, in a specific area I had to sit in, which inhibited me from asking what I needed, while I was told I wasn’t normal.”
The same evening, I met Greg Nijs in front of the door of the gallery, a sociologist and researcher who did a PhD around multiversal designing, specifically in the case of the experience of everyday mobilities in people moving into old age, but with a general interest towards the intersection of caring, healing, and access. After listening to Sharona, he addresses the various experiences ignored for a long time when it comes to planning and designing infrastructures like streets, bridges, houses, parks, public transport and cities. “It awaits a view from somewhere else than from the body normative decision makers”. I cannot think of anyone beyond a normative body, who is in position to take these design decisions. Can you?
When Sharona speaks about her day-to-day, there is a lot of expected harm and warnings. “The big red flag is when somebody tells you something is fully accessible. For them disability means often someone needs a wheelchair or has trouble walking. They don't realise that a person might have issues with their kidney or their bones. And in the wheelchair service at airports they treat you like luggage, delivering you two hours before the light, rarely allowing you to use the washroom.” Sharona Franklin’s practice is, amongst other themes, about figuring out what accessibility means for people who do not have access, and what can be done. She is herself the test and the expert.
“It needs a push for accessibility-based training around disability, plus empathy-based training. It needs realising that designing a washroom in the wrong place can harm people.”
I have taught various courses on design and architecture in many cities, and the red flag is always out there. Accessibility is mentioned as a label, but not considered in the execution. The consequence is that people with disabilities become domesticated. They stay at home out of fear, excluded from civic life. “Most of my life I spend at home. The reality is also that it alienates disabled people from getting to know each other. Being homebound is isolating. Community is important for any marginalised group, as much as any non-marginalised group. That is why the internet has been reassuring. The disability community gained courage through it.” These bodies are neglected. They are surrounded by bureaucratic structures that have allowed disability exclusion, ablecentric ideologies and ableist capitalism to perpetuate and continue for so long. How many people do you know who repeat exactly that sentence from the artwork on the wall in the gallery when they speak about their unborn child? Sharona Franklin underlines that “The most important thing is to keep in mind that accessibility is about safety boundaries. It is not letting people in, but it's making people feel safe. The more people feel like they're accepted, the more people will feel they can ask for their boundaries to be met.”
To more on regard listen to Institution Building: Sharona Franklin in conversation with Matylda Krzykowsk.
Things Might is a column about the designed environment and how it sometimes becomes, often hurts, occasionally explodes and usually takes by Matylda Krzykowski. She urges you to watch Crip Camp on Netflix and follow Down to the Economy by Vienne Chan and Katja Meier.
Trust, a photo of Sharona Franklin by Matylda Krzykowski.