I have touched on the idea of idealism several times. The ideal of the beautiful and the unblemished can be found in the Christian Bible and in Greek culture. I have no doubt that when it comes to the gods, their representatives and sacrifices are universally expected to be ideal.
But we are dealing with human reality which cannot be distorted by classical allusions to perfection. We are not dealing with sacrifices either – at least not intentionally.
There is sound evidence that physically beautiful people are treated much more favourably than those modestly endowed with physical appeal. But if we examine our primate nature more carefully there are other more powerful signals of success. In males that includes aggressiveness and the ability to build alliances, for example.
Ideal humans are rare. You don’t often find handsome, intelligently aggressive men who are great at building alliances. They are mercifully scarce. [I say that because an overabundance of them would make our reality a constant battleground] There are a lot of almost who strive to fill the bill to varying degrees of success. The rest of us merely dream of being that good – or so we are induced to think.
A minority of any community meets the criteria to be assessed as members of the ideal elite – the beautiful people – the god-like. And yet we have the template of the ideal tattooed upon our psyches as if it had real meaning for us. It doesn’t. We are mostly blemished in some way
Despite this we think in ideals – and in averages – as if the ‘average’ person is an ideal of all people in a physical sense. It is guesswork. In a tribal setting without fixed infrastructure, it may have been possible to accommodate individual needs. In a massed population with a built environment with costly infrastructure that has to cater to everybody the easy thing is to go for averages. But averages, like ideals, don’t exist in the real world.
The seating problem
These days I care about seating because I need to use it way more than I have done in the past. I care about where it is, what it is made of, and how high it is.
Here’s a quick scenario. I am walking in a park because that’s where there is an accessible pathway. There are bench seats nicely spaced. They have nice timber slats that stay wet after rain, and they are low. I need a break, so I sit. In the summer the seats are dry but are in full sun.
Did I mention they are low? I am tall. Getting out of a low seat can be a bit of a problem for tall people with mobility disabilities.
I live in Katoomba. Down the whole length of the main shopping strip, I don’t think there’s a single bench seat that’s under cover. Clearly the seats have been placed there for a purpose – an identified need. But that need is considered active only when the weather is dry. You can sit on the seat in the rain and maybe avoid getting a wet bum if you have the right kit.
But here’s the point. Installing a seat is half the solution to the problem of where to sit if you need a break. The other half of the problem is ensuring the seat is usable all the time.
I think the problem comes down to a sense of idealism – ideally you don’t need a public seat to sit on, so those who do are a bit of a pest – so we’ll stick a seat here and there because we have to. People who are not ideal are reluctantly catered to. We have to spend extra money pandering to their lack of ideal attributes, and that means less money for making ‘normal’ people even more comfortable.
You may think I am being unkind. But I am not attributing conscious intent to any action – rather an unconscious one. I am not suggesting intentional unkindness – rather that an unconscious limit has been imposed upon natural kindness. What worker installing a seat that was exposed to sun and rain would do so knowing that their mother would be a user – unless their natural care was dulled? What dulled that sense?
In the past I have looked at bigger accessibility issues – things not done because of larger limitations. But things done to facilitate access done in an imperfect way have eluded my attention. It has only been since I became member of my local government access advisory committee that I have become aware of how much thought must be put into seating in public spaces to make those spaces accessible.
A bench style seat could be an aid to access, or it could be place where the unimpaired take their ease to enjoy where they are – and this they will not do under the hot sun or in rain without protection. And because advanced age itself is not a disability, just a consequence of the passage of time, a seat in a park, or on a street is more a reward than an aid to seniors.
When we imagine seats as aids to access, we are adding a new dimension of thought to design, material, and placement. At a basic level a seat is something to sit upon. It can be a nice to have or a must have. Nice to haves are for enjoyment. They can enhance the experience of being somewhere. A seat as a must have is something that makes being in a place possible. It becomes a necessary and accessible resting place. By accessible I mean you can get onto it and off it independently.
A must have seat is needed periodically for resting and stabilising so as to enjoy being in the place one is in. A perfect example of this is at Wentworth Falls lake where a concrete pathway has been extended to a small jetty at the western point of the lake. A seat has been installed about halfway along the path, and another seat on the jetty. I can just use the seats in terms of height for getting up. But, as attractive as the seats are – chunky timber – they give me a wet bum when I go walking after rain.
I love the fact that the path and the seats have been installed. I have added a trip to the jetty to my morning walks when I crave being by water. I pack a small towel into my shoulder bag because, on wet mornings, I am still a little self-conscious about walking around with a large damp patch on my backside. What might some folk think?
Wentworth Falls lake is a fine example of an accessible pathway in an attractive setting with nicely spaced seats, and work is being done to make it even better. Even so, there is inadequate attention to weather – as it is assumed that the only time people with disability go walking in when the weather is suitable. The idea of folk with disability walking for exercise, even when the weather is not ideal, hasn’t struck a chord. The tyranny of idealism dominates.
A few years ago, I was in Mudgee on my way to Dubbo. I parked opposite a taxi rank to get some breakfast at a café just around the corner. The café is now closed, sadly. I was struck by the presence of an eminently sensible idea. The taxi rank had a roof. The drivers could sit in their cars on a stinking hot day and no longer suffer as much. The roof was new. But hot days and taxis were not. It took a long time to care about the drivers, but it finally happened.
I used to rely on taxis to get from home to the station on a regular basis. I remember that even hot days in Katoomba were tough if you had to sit in a car in the sun for any length of time. I told the drivers about what I had seen in Mudgee. The reaction was uniform – what a great idea, but it would never happen here. It hasn’t – yet.
I don’t know what year the roof went up over the taxi rank in Mudgee. It wasn’t there in the early 1990s when I started to be a regular visitor, and I don’t recall it prior to 2008. But I do know that back then there very hot days and taxis.
I am not trying to equate sitting in a taxi with sitting on a park bench. I want to draw your attention to the fact that finally somebody figured that dehydrated taxi drivers serve no good purpose. The light of kindness penetrated the fog of…what? Taxi drivers are too low on the ladder of respect to care about? They are god-like in their thermal endurance skills and we don’t need to care?
Some of us are old enough to remember when car seats didn’t slide back or forward. There was one position, and the seat [a bench seat], was firmly bolted to the floor [ah, a twinge of nostalgia ripples through me].
We don’t have them anymore because we stopped thinking in averages. These days you can pimp your ride in myriad ways.
Universal design is a thing that’s not well understood. It’s also called Inclusive design. It’s different from ideal or average design in that the intent is to design for everybody. Can you make a park bench that suits tall and short people in all weather? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that’s the question to be asked once the spell of idealism and averagism [it’s a word now] is broken.
Seating matters to me. It seemed like a simple matter until I got interested. I used to put up with discomfort and inconvenience because I was just so darned grateful to be able to sit down at times. But when I was obliged to think about it from other people’s perspectives it became emblematic of a way of thinking that we are working to change.
Things begin to change when we start asking the right questions. Getting to the point of being able to ask the right questions is an adventure and a challenge. Up for it?