Two MacArthur Winners – A Medievalist and a Designer for People with Disabilities

I am a cynic about most high-prestige awards, institutions, and other fancy things. Somehow, though, the MacArthur fellowships (aka the “genius” grants) manage to please me every year. Whatever their process, which is mostly opaque, they find both high profile and low profile scholars and creators who just do outstanding work.

We’ve had a good run of medievalists in the last decade or so, an elite cadre now including Marina Rustow.

Marina Rustow is a historian using the Cairo Geniza texts to shed new light on Jewish life and on the broader society of the medieval Middle East. The Cairo Geniza (or Genizah) comprises hundreds of thousands of legal documents, letters, and literary materials—many of them fragmentary—deposited in Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue over more than a millennium. Rustow’s approach to this archive goes beyond decoding documents, in itself a formidable task, to questioning the relationship between subjects and medieval states and asking what that relationship tells us about power and the negotiation of religious boundaries.

Given my own background in Mediterranean studies, I know Rustow’s work and I know her archive, though I lack the language skills to work with it directly.  This is her lab, dedicated to making the archive accessible.

The other winner (other than Coates, whose work is extremely important, but also already well known), is Alex Truesdell. I didn’t know Truesdell’s work, but it sounds fascinating.

Alex Truesdell is a visionary social entrepreneur who creates low-tech, affordable tools and furniture that enable children with disabilities to participate actively in their homes, schools, and communities. Truesdell challenges our assumption that disabilities are fixed and instead suggests that limitations can be minimized, or even eliminated, with effective user-inspired adaptations—the kind she creates as founder and director of the nonprofit Adaptive Design Association (ADA).

Most devices that help children with special needs are expensive and mass-produced and must be replaced as a child ages. Each item built by ADA, in contrast, is the result of extensive collaboration with a child and family in order to optimize how the user will function at home or school. Truesdell’s innovative construction processes use common and affordable materials, such as corrugated cardboard and glue, to allow designers to prototype, build, and fit equipment on-site quickly and inexpensively. The result is unique, imaginative, and thoroughly useful products. Examples include steps (customized with superhero designs) that allow a young boy to climb in and out of his wheelchair without assistance, a seat insert that makes a standard classroom desk accessible for a little person, and a rocking chair that a non-walking child can propel and that can be combined with a detachable tray for eating or play.

Amazing, right? This is what these grants are for, in my opinion – taking a visionary, giving them a lot of money and more visibility, and saying …. go create!

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