Life has been good overall. I’ve been wanting to write about various happenings of late (e.g., my trip to Nara for ICFP), but I’ve been terribly busy. Sure, sure, everyone’s busy. But no, my problem is that I have a terrible habit of overcommitting. For the longest time I’d always chalked it up to a personal failing; but lately I’m thinking that’s not quite right. Our society has a way of making us think whatever problems we face must be due to “personal failings”. One of the classic examples here is the Norman Door. But another classic example is the way we blame people with chronic conditions for the ableism they face.
So, what is a “Norman Door”? They’re called that because the problem was first (or most famously) highlighted by Don Norman. Have you ever had a door where you always pull when you’re supposed to push, or always push when you’re supposed to pull? Everyone has, and yet whenever we encounter them we always resort to blaming ourselves. Doors are such simple devices, surely any problems we have must be on us, right? But the problem isn’t us; the problem is the door. We discover how to operate the world around us by making use of affordances: flat/horizontal surfaces afford sitting and putting things on; handles afford grabbing and pulling; vertical surfaces afford pushing and leaning. So when public buildings don’t want people to sit on their ledges, they add bumps so they’re not smooth. When airplanes have surfaces they don’t want you to sit or put your feet on, they make them slanted so things don’t stay put. And a well-designed door is transparent about whether it should be pushed (plates or crashbars) or pulled (handles, especially vertical ones), and transparent about which side of the door needs operating (rather than, say, putting a doorknob in the center of the door). Those doors you can never get right are so difficult to deal with, not because you’re an idiot, but because they are poorly designed: the door’s affordances say to do one thing, when in fact you must do the opposite.
Poor design is ubiquitous, and I could go on all day about it. But the problem of Norman Doors isn’t just a problem of poor design, it’s a problem of social expectations. The problem isn’t just that these doors are annoying. It’s also that we blame ourselves for the failings of their designers. It’s also that this continuous low-grade annoyance exerts a continuous low-grade cost— in time, in flow, in emotional reserves. We get disrupted, frustrated, exhausted, and then we feel bad for not “measuring up” to society’s standards; and we reinforce that guilt by shaming others whenever they fall into the same traps. This is the same trick we play on minoritized people and people with chronic conditions. These people have to pay constant low-grade costs to overcome the iniquities of a society designed against them, but then we train them to blame themselves for encountering those injustices at all, let alone for not having the reserves to go on to lead “a productive life” after being exhausted by microaggressions.
Yes, I have problems overcommitting. But is it a personal failing? I’m not so sure. The problem is less one of not having enough time in an absolute sense, but rather a problem of not having enough spoons. I long ago got used to the constant low-grade costs of sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and saneism. But try as I might, I’ve not been able to get used to the costs of ableism. The sexism et al. was far worse in Bloomington than they are here in Mountain View. But from what I’ve seen so far, academia is far more amenable to folks with my sort of physical disabilities than industry is. It’s not even that Google is bad, per se; and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a lot better than most of industry. But even if the grass is browner on the other side, that doesn’t make it green here. The goog is great about providing ergonomic support, and that helps a ton. But the food/wellness program is grossly pro-orthorexic, which means they’re terrible for my dietary needs: I have issues with low-electrolytes, and the whole “salt is bad m’kay” propaganda causes health problems. (Hint: salt is crucial for the proper functioning of neurons. Also for silly things like maintaining blood volume, and hence adequate blood pressure.) I can, of course, bring salt from home or make sure to have extra at breakfast and dinner; but there’s an ongoing cost for keeping extra vigilant about it.
One of the bigger and harder-to-address forms of ableism in industry is the requirement to be ever present. Office life is exhausting. The triggering of sensory hypersensitivity, and accusations “antisociality” for wearing sensory-dep headphones. The expectation to sit still at your desk all day, and judgment for getting up to move around every pomodoro. Being interrogated if you use your cane irregularly, or being invisibilized if you use it regularly. To say nothing of the extreme ubiquitous fat-shaming of California. Many days, I’d be fine to get stuff done if I could work from home, but it takes all my spoons just to be “present”. And after a whole day or a whole week of being “present” I don’t have any energy left to pursue my passions and ambitions. Is it my fault for “over”committing to these passions? Of daring to have ambitions outside of surviving capitalism? Or is it a systemic problem that forces disabled people like myself to absorb the costs of society’s failure to design for the whole variety of human bodies?