Let’s Normalize Equity in Design

In Layman’s Terms (A Non-Architect’s Point of View)

“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Romans 12:19 New International Version

In thinking about the backlash against efforts to bring about a more equitable world I was transported to my Judeo-Christian heritage and the idea that vengeance should never be a personal motivator.

The reason I link these two is because I’m convinced that in bringing in equity we sometimes take away (underserved?) benefits and the backlash is a feeling that revenge is needed to rebalance the scales.

Efforts to bring about equity may be a way to balance the scales of society but it is sometimes characterized as giving benefit to people who don’t deserve it. It is striking that people who make those kinds of statements have difficulty giving examples of the undeserving. When pushed they go to stereotypes and urban legend.

Equity is like an adjustable office chair. The desk is designed for the “average” something[1]. It’s hard to change the height of a desk, so we change the height of the chair. That way, we think, we can make most people comfortable at work. Then the people for whom this is not adequate get ergonomic assessments and the gap in comfort gets addressed. That’s equity at work.

Then the backlash kicks in, and people start talking about the ergonomic assessment as some kind of elite privilege. Only those whose physicians have flexible ethics will provide the “note” needed to get the assessment. So people have to prove to their employers that they have a medical “right” to a comfortable desk. And those who don’t get it feel either morally superior because they don’t need one or righteous indignation at the wasted resources. And so they take revenge by insidiously making comments (quiet and loud) about “those” people. Creating an “Us vs. Them” seeking to humiliate and demean people for wanting to be comfortable at work, talking about them as weak and snobby and other.

Until the process is normalized or we start issuing everyone desks where the height can be changed.

Then people start looking back at how sad and ridiculous those fighting the change were.

Is this cycle really necessary? Maybe it’s time to stop designing for a mythical average and start the design process by acknowledging that humanity is a vast variety of shapes, sizes and abilities, and we all have a right to function comfortably in the world.

[1] See page 738 of Commissioner of Education, The Year 1892-93.

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