I don’t have thumbs.
To be honest, I don’t even think about it all that often. Do you often think about that phantom appendage you’ve never had? I didn’t think so… we go through our days on autopilot. Get dressed, brush our teeth, put on shoes, drive to work, eat lunch, type an email, open a door, and every other mundane action we can take.
But there are absolutely times I think about my lack of thumbs in this world designed largely by those who possess the fifth digit. Buttoning your shirt, gripping a toothbrush, tying your shoes, typing 70 words per minute, and gripping a damned spherical doorknob. I don’t mean to brag or anything, but I think I do pretty well buttoning a shirt. (That top button is terrible, but I don’t think many will disagree with me.) I mastered tying my shoes at five years old, then relearned at age 30 (don’t ask). I’ve also been tested at over 70 wpm and that’s typing with an entirety of four or five fingers total. But that spherical doorknob is my kryptonite!
In theory, I should be able to extend my reaching arm (I’ll explain this in a later post), grasp the doorknob with my three t-rex fingers, and twist to open. In reality, that is just not the case. Without having that articulating joint and providing extra gripping force where it’s needed those spherical doorknobs can stop me in my tracks.
There others like me who would agree. Also people with muscular dystrophy. People with cerebral palsy. People with arthritis.
The ADA agrees as well: “Operable parts shall be operable with one hand and shall not require tight grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist. Most lever-operated mechanisms, push-type mechanisms, and U-shaped handles are acceptable designs. … Door hardware that can be operated with a closed fist or a loose grip accommodates the greatest range of users. Hardware that requires simultaneous hand and finger movements require greater dexterity and coordination, and is not recommended.” Emphasis added.
As much as I hate spherical doorknobs, I am sure to appreciate the door levers and push bars that appear in so many public buildings nowadays. Hell; I can even manage the thumb-latch style after over 30 years of practice. But here’s where we get to the point. I am not unique in this world. Thankfully, there is an army of designers out there trying to improve everyone’s daily experience without us even realizing it. Subtle design changes can mean the world for a small minority of people. But it can make everyone’s life just a little bit easier.
When your hands are full and you can’t conveniently turn a doorknob or if you break a finger… these nearly unnoticeable features of our world can make a big difference. As someone with quite a different experience from mine, but also very similar, simply stated: “When we design for disability, we all benefit.” (Check out some TED talks.)
Now that you’re back after a few hours of getting consumed by TED talks, I’m sure we’re all excited to make this world so much more accommodating and convenient! Let’s just temper it by saying that we’re never going to get it perfect. Even with the best of intentions, we’re not going to always get it right for everyone. (Oh boy… there’s another idea for a post!)
Sometimes even completely unrelated changes in the world converge to screw someone over! I read a recent article about the very noble cause of reducing single use materials and conserving materials adversely affecting a woman in San Francisco. In this case it was eliminating disposable cups which are lighter and easier to manage for her. For me, I almost don’t care about the weight of the vessel so long as there’s a good way for me to grasp it. Watch me attempting to wield a hot cup of coffee in a paper cup and compare that to my complete confidence in handling a liter of beer in a heavy glass stein at Oktoberfest. (Handles are great, and PLEASE give me wine in a glass with a proper stem!) This is a specific area where we could have diverging preferences, but I think a little good old fashioned courtesy and flexibility could help everyone.
From the potential coffee shop that keeps a few options of cups for customers to the very real bartenders who gave me wine in a tulip beer glass so I could hold it better than the stemless tumbler, being thoughtful of others’ desires and needs can go a very long way.