I’ve just started reading a new book called What Can A Body Do, How We Meet the Built World, written by Sarah Hendren, who teaches design for disability at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts.

One of the interesting points she makes early in the book is that there was a time before we quantified humans, their development, and abilities. For most of modern human history, there wasn’t really an idea of “normal”.

Starting in the early nineteenth century, social scientists began the practice of collecting and studying information about populations, driven by speculation about how these measurements could be useful, especially in medicine. Where could statistics give doctors insight and understanding about people and their reported maladies, especially as mapped on a ‘bell curve’ that helped researchers identify traits that were common—and thereby ‘normal’—or, conversely, uncommon, possessed by people we might now call outliers?

Before the 19th century and modern statistics, we were all flawed beings.

In the absence of a norm, any human body was just a shadow of the admirable perfection of superhuman bodies—the ones gods and goddesses or other hero figures possessed. The emergence of modern statistics shifted the point of comparison from a lofty abstraction that no one was expected to achieve to a side-by-side analysis, assessing ‘normal’ by observing people relative to one another.

I find this thought fascinating. While there’s clearly a huge upside to measuring people and populations, one of the big downsides may be that it helped to create an us and them world. You are either developmentally on-track or not. You are either abled or disabled. You’re either normal, or you’re not.

The book explores the relationship between bodies and the built world and, at least in the early parts I’ve already read, makes the argument that bodies should not be judged outside of the context of how they relate to the world we’ve constructed for them.

This supports something I’ve been thinking a lot about for the last couple of years: humans aren’t disabled by their bodies, they are disabled by their environment, by the barriers to participation we’ve built into everyday life that exclude those who don’t fit our all too often narrow definition of “normal.”

I can’t wait to read more.