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Column: ‘I’m 105.5cms tall and I gain access to the world around me by asking passers-by for help’

Erik G

KINDNESS HOLDS GREAT historic value. Aristotle described it as:

helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped.

In the modern lexicon, kindness can be viewed as a weakness and, despite its power to positively affect others and oneself, it’s rare that I would hear an act or an individual described as such. In Ireland, the closest synonym that comes to mind is “sound”.

Despite it not translating internationally, there is no higher compliment or affirmation in Ireland than to be considered sound. What does it mean? No one is absolutely sure but there’s a tangible recognition when you encounter it.

I depend on strangers’ kindness

My survival is contingent on strangers’ kindness. That sounds trite and more than a tad dramatic but the design of the physical environment impedes my autonomy.

I have achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. I stand at the height of 105.5cms tall and I gain access to the world around me through life-hacking domestic objects and asking passers-by for assistance.

To bring light to these challenges, I’m taking part in the #SoundEffect panel discussion “And Still We Rise” at Electric Picnic on Friday at 7pm, by A Lust For Life and Irish Women’s Podcast in association with The Irish Times. It will explore “inside the hearts, minds and bodies of women in Ireland” and for me, I want to take this opportunity to talk about design and kindness.

I can always ask for help in Ireland

The design of a public bathroom and in particular, the height of the lock on the door, is the most effective example of this circumstance. The National Disability Authority and the United Nations argue that for most disabled people, their height of comfortable range for accessing countertops, ATM machines, and locks on bathroom doors is between 90cms and 120cms. Many architects incorporate this into their design, but some, especially in older buildings, solely accommodate for the average population.

If the lock is outside of my comfortable range, my first instinct is to look for a bin. I turn it upside down and stand on it – hoping it will bear my weight – and close the door. If that doesn’t work, I use my phone and jam the lock closed thanks to the innovation of Steve Jobs and Jony Ive.

If neither of those tactics prove successful, the last option can be embarrassing, humiliating but wholly necessary. I approach a stranger, introduce myself and try to endear them to me in a way that is not suspicious or odd – remember, we are in a bathroom. I articulate my problem, apologise profusely and ask if they would mind standing outside of my bathroom door and momentarily act as security to ensure that my dignity is maintained and that no one enters the cubicle unannounced.

#SoundEffect

It would be easy to note that a campaign such as #SoundEffect merely offers a platform for virtue signalling. An act which according to Urban Dictionary means:

To take a conspicuous but essentially useless action to support a good cause but actually to show off how much more moral you are than everybody else.

Social media is a haven for aspirational living and a domain that cultivates a currency of likes, often determined by how conventionally attractive you are. It sometimes incentivises the use of offensive and prejudicial language and is home to a performance of gratitude and other emotions. #blessed

Yet, in a society that is growing increasingly apathetic to the continuous wave of outrage, negativity and comment sections, what impact would it have on us if we scheduled time to acknowledge and celebrate the moments of kindness we have power to create and appreciate? I don’t imagine the impact would be immediately transformative.

I am under no illusion that soundness is the solution to the systemic problems that accelerate society’s cycle of poverty, homelessness and inequality, but I do believe that showing kindness and being grateful to those who are sound to you can offer momentary solace and at present, that might just be enough.

If I have ever stopped you and asked for your assistance in the bathroom, in reaching an item from the top shelf or if you have alerted the barista that I was next in the queue, despite them not being able to see me, thank you for being sound and please continue to do so.

Sinéad Burke is a PhD candidate, primary school teacher, broadcaster and an advocate. Sinéad is undertaking her PhD in the School of Education, Trinity College. Her research is correlated with the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, with particular emphasis on the voice of the child within the primary school classroom. Sinéad recently completed a TED talk in New York on the intersection of accessibility and design. She is an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Irish Girls and a Leonardo at the Science Gallery, Dublin.

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