The Haas Institute's Disability Studies cluster and School of Environmental Design on February 25 hosted a talk by disability scholar Aimi Hamraie titled "Making Access Critical: Disability, Race, and Gender in Environmental Design." Hamraie is an Assistant Professor of Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University.
Check below for a transcript of the talk.
I'd like to begin by acknowledging that we're on the lands of the Ohlone people and offer respect towards their elders and to all Ohlone people of past and present. Thank you so much to the Haas Institute and to the College of Environmental Design for the invitation and space to speak today. I would also like to recognize that there are members of our audience who are leaders in disability movements and who have lived some of the history that I'm going to talk about today.
As an access note, I will be reading, speaking, and showing images which will be described.
Today I'll be speaking about how norms of disability, race, and gender shape accessible design. Whereas most scholarship on accessibility seeks to convince the unconvinced of the value of inclusion, my work falls into a paradigm that I call critical access studies. The word play is intentional here. Access is critical, both in the sense of its urgency and in the need for critique. Critical access studies holds accessibility's promises of inclusion, in tension with what Donna Harway calls non-innocence, that even while technologies and material forms may promise justice or equity, their entanglement with systems of discrimination and domination also demand different forms of accountability.
Throughout my talk I'll show how efforts to expand accessibility have often produced new and unacknowledged challenges for the project of disability justice. Rather than take access for granted as a de facto or common sense good, I'll investigate its epistemologies and political commitments through an analysis of what I call Knowing-making, that's with a hyphen, not just designed things, but also the knowledges that enable them. This is a feminist science studies framework that I'm applying to disability studies of the built environment. In my broader work, I explore critical access through ethnography, pedagogy, disability justice, activism, and design experimentation.
Today I'm going to focus on historical modes of knowing-making that shaped who counts as a disabled user and how designers could know. My primary concern is the question of how differences between the categories of disability, race, and gender materialize and how they come to matter.
Most intersectional disability scholarship builds on the work of Kimberle Crenshaw to explore the mutual reinforcement of systems of ableism, racism, and sexism. Or what Patricia Hill Collins calls the matrix of domination. Here I'm thinking about scholars like Chris bell, Mel Chen, Sue Schweik, Vilissa Thompson, and Leroy Moore, among others.
My work adds an additional layer to this discussion by addressing how disability, race, and gender came to appear as non-entangled and non-intersecting single issues in design environments. This is important because it reveals how common beliefs or discourses surrounding accessibility are actually working against intersectionality. It also maps the structural and ideological systems in which various forms of access participation, helping scholars and designers to understand how the disabled user or inhabitant has come to appear as a presumed white, middle class, and cisgender heterosexual body.
I'll begin with some examples of what I mean by knowing-making. Then I'll take us through how accessible design emerged in relation to the rehabilitation profession, how disability activists, like those here at Berkeley challenged this in order to transform architectural education. Also, how contemporary framings of disability through the disability justice movement provide a different way of thinking about the project of critical access.
Let's look at some examples. First is method, there's a rumor that in the early days of Berkeley's disability movement activists went out into the city under dark of night smashing sidewalks with sledge hammers and using bags of cement to pour curb cuts. The photo on the right shows the cover of disability magazine, The Independent. There are four white disabled activists, two walking and who using wheelchairs. The ones on the far right are Hale Zukas and Eric Dibner. They're going up the first city funded curb cut in Berkeley. These activists actually deny ever smashing sidewalks at night, but the stories about sidewalk smashing have become part of the mythos of disability culture, articulating a sensibility that one disabled people engage in direct action we also design and make new material worlds.
On the left is actually a chunk of concrete from a demonstration in Denver by the Direct Action Group, ADAPT, and this is held in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.
The curb cut is often used to tell a story about accessibility as universally beneficial, that this feature developed for wheelchair users was also found to benefit mothers, people pushing strollers, bicyclists, people pushing shopping courts. A common conclusion is that curb cuts benefit everyone. Web designers have borrowed this as a metaphor citing the curb cut affect to discuss the benefits of disability technologies for multiple users. This story also bears the textures of a kind of liberal disability rights narrative. Building curb cuts comes to mean paving over obstacles, creating easy transitions, similar to assumptions that when rights are legislated, oppressive barriers disappear.
The curb cut also tells another story, the story of the sledgehammer against sidewalk, of designing as protest, and even a story of friction. The raised bumps that appear on most curb cuts today were a designed response to the way that curb cuts in their smooth transition from sidewalk to street failed to notify blind people of the elevation change. After several iterations of materials and designs, activists invented tactile paving as a way of sharing space, but with friction. This sensibility regarding experimentation and cross-disability coalitions suggests the design politics of non-compliance and anti-assimilation.
Second example, market. In suburban Ohio a married couple, one disabled woman who uses a wheelchair, and her non-disabled husband, both white, have constructed a 3,500 square foot luxury Craftsman home as a universal design living laboratory, shown in this image with its beige stone exterior, covered drive through, and expansive lawn. This is what colloquially we would call a McMansion. This space is meant to be a show room for universal design products focused on aging and wheelchair users, such as zero slope entrances, grab bars into the hallways and bathrooms, and kitchens design with countertops of two sizes, hers and his. But it's also a showroom for the idea that universal design ought to be invisible, refusing to announce the presence of disability, as if disability was a stigmatizing quality. This site communicates a notion that universal designs means better consumer cultures for individual, aging, and disabled people. That it seamlessly integrates with heterosexual and wealthy nuclear family formations, and that the ultimate goal of access should be luxury home design, an idea that is complicated by the historical, racial, and economic underpinnings of suburban home ownership in the U.S.
Third example, assemblage. According to Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, the Ed Roberts campus at the Ashby Bart Station, just down the street from here, is a universally designed transit oriented campus that expresses the idea that good design is fundamentally a social justice issue. The building features a street level window that overlooks an interior ramp, a winding red spiral suspended from cables beneath a large circular skylight.
In the interior photo shown here, taking by disabled photographer Anthony Tussler who is part of the movement here in Berkeley, a photography exhibit is apparent against a long rounded wall behind the ramp with photos of disability protest from the Paul Longmore Institutes exhibit "Patient No More". The exhibit commemorated the historic 504 Sit-in, which led to a commitment to enforce federal accessibility law.
Unlike the previous example, accessible is not just marked here, but it's celebrated. In addition to this festive red ramp, the building's way-finding signage, textured concrete, automatic sensors and doors, restrooms, natural light, open spaces, and raised bed rooftop garden assembly to materialize the legacy of Bay Area disability rights organizations, which are housed inside.
The building's not just a building, it's a node in a broader assemblage. Nearly as old as Berkeley's disability communities, Bart was the first U.S. public transportation system build in the mindset of a shifting federal disability rights landscape between the late 60s and early 70s. The same year that Berkeley adopted its mandate for city-funded curb cuts, 1973, the Ashby Station opened to the public, its construction having been delayed by disability activists' friction demands for elevator access. Together, the curb cuts in Bart's transit system are often attributed to the rise of the area's large disabled population and an independent living movement's success.
There's also another history surrounding this site, a story of race, land, and power. In the 60s as part of urban renewal efforts that displaced many poor and elderly African-Americans in Oakland and Berkeley, Bart broke ground on the Ashby Station by using eminent domain to clear a rail porter. Many homes and businesses were displaced. Justified in the name of solving pathologized urban poverty, these events were built into a regime of productive, white spacial citizenship, which buttressed legal efforts toward accessibility and simultaneously intensified the surveillance and displacement of urban communities of color.
In the years since the Ed Roberts campus was built, development proposals have intensified leading nearby residents to express concerns about gentrification and displacement. With new amenities many fear will come higher rent prices in a metropolitan area already experiencing an affordable housing crises, evictions, and one of the country's largest populations of unsheltered, unhoused people, many of whom are disabled. But these are not issues that are typically considered as part of accessible design. According to a recent report by the Haas Institute, the area surrounding the Ashby Station has moderate to high levels of racial segregation even today.
Each of these examples that I've just shown illustrates at least some elements of universal design, a late 20th century philosophy end at creating design for all. We get the sense that accessibility can apply across different scales of design, products, buildings, technologies, cities. Each space also embodies a very different way of understanding the category of disability, whether as a medical, political, or consumer category. In each space the promises of design for all actually materialize in relation to a very particular type of disabled user. Whether you, or I, or anyone else are part of that all depends on whether our presence has been anticipated. In other words, making is entangled with and produces ways of knowing.
Accessible design, sometimes called barrier-free design in the U.S. became part of legal codes beginning in the late 60s. Then in the 80s a discourse in universal design emerged through the work of disabled architect Ronald Mays who saw a way to go beyond legal codes to expand the category of the user and also to establish a consumer market for accessible products.
Here I'm showing the 1997 Principles of Universal Design poster. It's in neon pink and chartreuse and the principles are listed here. They are equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use. These borrow terms of art from fields such as human computer interaction and rehabilitation, and they're translated into at least 11 languages, appear as mandates in the U.N. Convention on the rights of disabled persons, and have also influenced accessibility in fields far beyond architecture and product design, including feminist theory, education, information science, public health, web accessibility, writing and composition, and more recently, urban planning, which is where my current book project is.
The stakes of a more critical understanding of accessibility and universal design are actually quite high because of the reach of these concepts into so many fields and also into so many geographic areas.
To understand why the accessibility movement emerged we can look to the history of the architectural user. Historians such as Barbara Penner, Lance Hosey, and Robert Emery have shown that architects' conceptions of the user are linked to an apparently white, able-bodied, and often masculine body that came to appear as neutral through its citation in handbooks such as the "Architectural Graphics Standards".
Here I'm showing two images. On the left is Charles Davenport who is a eugenicist. He was hired by the military to measure soldiers' bodies for anthropometric studies. In the images they're just like a series of Davenport measuring this one soldier's body. This created a database of embodied statistics that were then exported into civilian use.
On the right is ergonomist Albin Tilly who used Davenport's data for this figure called "average Joe" who's this outline of a masculine body on the wall behind him. He also used data from home economics for another figured called "average Josephine" who's next to him, so there's a man and a woman. These were reproduced in the industrial design from Henry Dreyfus Associate's book "The Measure of Man" and later in the graphic standards.
We can see that the figure of the user is a statistical fiction taken from particular bodies, here, strong soldiers and homemakers, and apply it to a broader range of designs. In the second photo Joe and Josephine contrasts with Tilly himself who's an in flesh person who doesn't resemble either one of them.
I call this reliance on average data the Normate Template for design. Drawing on Rosemarie Garland-Thompson's concept of the normate as an unmarked privileged body that comes to appear normal through its circulation and cultural reproduction. The Normate Template is one reason why built environments are not often created with disability in mind.
In response to the Normate Template, a new regime emerged to study the disabled user. I call this access-knowledge, again the hyphen, recalling Michel Foucault's notion of power knowledge as a regime encompassing ways of knowing populations as well as managing and standardizing acceptable forms of life.
Here I'm showing a page from the graphic standards from the early 80s, which shows average Joe using a wheelchair and extending arms into space along with indications of measurements. In the upper right hand corner there's also average Joe standing and using a white cane. These figures drew on data from the 60s and remain some of the only depictions of disability in the graphic standards today.
The new disabled figures were based on research conducted in the 60s at a rehabilitation program for disabled students funded by the GI Bill at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. This research included measuring bodies in wheelchairs similar to those anthropometric measurements I showed earlier, led to ANSI A117-1, which was the first accessibility standard. Here I'm showing the cover of it, it's says "American Standard Specifications For Making Buildings and Facilities Accessible to and Usable By the Physically Handicapped". This was the first accessibility standard in the U.S. and it was then exported globally with the specific bodies of students in this program serving as standards for accessibility even in places where, for example, wheelchairs were not dominant assistant technology. There are places where wheelchair accessible restrooms, for example, are constructed outside of the United States, but people actually use different kinds of mobilities and those restrooms are not usable to them.
The bodies research for the standards were, one, the white, disabled soldier, so resembling Joe in the wheelchair. On the left is an image from the University of Illinois that shows scientists in a white coat standing next to this long ramp and then there's also a wheelchair user who's one of the soldiers, veterans, who's in the program, going up the ramp. They measured the white, disabled soldier body to create the standards. Then in the second image the other figure was the white, disabled suburban housewife. She is shown here in this demonstration accessible kitchen. These are both images from research studies at the University of Illinois.
I just want to point out that this is part of a larger post-war culture of eugenics and constructed normalcy with rehabilitation at its center. The main justification for accessibility in these standards was its place in what David Mitchell and Sharon Schneider called an able nationalist project of rehabilitating disabled soldiers into productive spatial citizens. Access could return soldiers to work where they would become contributing consumers. Later, this was extended to people with polio-related disabilities. It included both soldiers and civilians.
Accessibility was not a disability justice project. It was a project based on normalization. This is ironic because in the field of disability studies we talk about accessible built environments as an alternative to medicalizing disabled bodies. The idea is that we should focus on the environment and not the person's body. But it turns out that this idea actually came from the rehabilitation field as a way of saying that the environment can be used to optimize and make productive disabled bodies. This idea carries through today in the Americans With Disabilities Act, for example, which highlights employment and productivity as conditions of disabled citizenship and actually draws on this exact data for some parts of the accessibility guidelines. The history that I'm telling today is challenging some of the core assumptions in disabilities studies.
In advertisements and advocacy documents from the late 50s going forward accessibility proponents, all of whom as far as I could tell were white, male rehabilitation engineers, claimed that accessible design is design for all. The term all was not dissimilar from contemporary mottoes like "All lives matter" which presume the neutrality of invoking a population while not attending to differences and inequalities within that population. For example, these accessibility standards emerged in the Jim Crow era and most of the buildings and places upon which they focused, suburban homes, public schools, universities, churches, and public transportation, were highly racially segregated spaces. The word all was sometimes used as a reference to design for the lifespan, or design for aging. But access to aging in these conditions was also extremely racialized. Epidemiologist Nancy Krieger has shown that in the Jim Crow era black people living in living in segregated spaces were 20% less likely to live to be 65 years old, and hence aging. This aligns with what public health scholars studying the social determinants of health tell us about how, for example, neighborhoods affect life expectancy.
The accessibility standards also emerged during national conversations about race in the U.S. during the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act in the mid to late 60s, as well as racial uprisings in many cities.
The G.I. Bill that funded disabled veterans attending universities was also used to find mortgages that were exclusively available to white veterans and is in many ways attributed to the successes of suburbanization and white flight, which then led to disinvestment in cities.
Accessibility advocates rarely acknowledge struggles against racial segregation that framed their historical moment. Even though they were saying space should be desegregated for all people, they didn't actually talk about racial segregation and when they did, they adopted what today we would characterize as a post-racial ideology, claiming that civil rights laws had passed and therefore solved the problem of U.S. racism, and that the time had come for disability rights laws. This was both an illusion of ongoing racism and an investment in liberal rights regimes as solving oppression while also distinguishing the categories of disability and race. Advocates' persistent use of the term designed for all was also qualified by notions of citizenship at the same that Congress was debating the result of the Kerner Commission Report, which found that uprisings in cities were the result of white supremacy and white flight to suburbs, and basically unequal citizenship.
In her proceedings from the Design for All Americans Report which claimed accessibility as a primary right of citizenship and linked accessible spaces to living the amenities of the good U.S. suburban life. This framing of all Americans completely ignored that the citizenship status of black, indigenous, Asian, and Latin Americans was, as it remains today, an unresolved question, not just in terms of racial segregation, but also immigration restrictions, the criminalization of poverty, and later mass incarceration.
This recalls Michelle Alexander's argument that civil rights laws did not end Jim Crow, but merely redesigned the language that we use to describe it. The Design for All Americans Report resulted in the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968. The framing of the report also revealed the unequally distributed benefits of able nationalization for disabled people. While upholding the physically disabled worker, soldier, and mother, institutionalized an intellectually disabled people were not considered valuable to the nation and accessibility standards that focused more physical usability than on mental or sensory accessibility.
On top of all of that, laws addressing housing equity, voting right, and other civil rights did not expand to include a focus on disability or gender until the 80s, effectively describing these all as separate categories. We have an active construction of nonintersectionality.
The rehabilitation framework was not just problematic because of how it medicalized in normalized disabled bodies, but also the way that it rendered race and gender as non-existent considerations of ableism. This highlights what philosopher Charles Mills terms "the epistemology of ignorance". As Heidi Grasswick writes about this concept, "Ignorance is not the result of a benign gap in our knowledge, but deliberate choices to pursue certain kinds of knowledge while ignoring others."
The reliance of accessibility on rehabilitation models and data produced a regime of ignorance. Because the rehab model presented itself as scientific and data driven, disabled bodies came to appear legible only throughout measurement, such as in those graphic standards images that I showed, even then, only some disabled bodies. But ideological commitments to whiteness, compulsory rehabilitation, and hetero normativity were illegible. Then these epistemologies of ignorance were reproduced by resulting disability rights laws, as well as in some versions of the architecture professions' attempts to diversify education and practices. For example, in 1965 the American Institute of Architects worked with a vocational rehabilitation administration and drew upon the draft of design for all Americans to design a $60,000 professional education program on accessibility. The curriculum called for designing and building for the real, rather than the assumed average physical and mental characteristics of the population. Their strategy was to label this real population as a consumer market and to promote accessibility as lucrative to architects and builders by using population statistic about the prevalence of disability, effectively rendering disabled people as niche consumers in late-capitalism.
We can see this direct line of continuity here between rehabilitation, research, law, and education, as well as how the reduction of disabled bodies to measurements obscured, for example, the race and housing status and it didn't in any way challenge the gender norms of the representation of the disabled user as a mother and homemaker. These ways of knowing in turn shaped the disabled worker and productive spatial citizen as a consumer for whom getting access requires productivity and buying power.
While at the University of Illinois a rehabilitation program was shaping national accessibility standards, here at Berkeley an alternative paradigm was emerging that rejected rehabilitation knowledge in favor of establishing disabled people as experts about the built environment. This paradigm was part of a broader trend that I call epistemic activism, which is activism with years of research and education to produce social change.
Of course the movement here also engaged in many forms of direct action. Showed on the slide is an image of a group of protestors. They appear white, many of them appear to be women here in Berkeley. One person is holding up a sign that says "Everybody needs equal access". This is a protect against the productivity imperative of the rehabilitation in the field. But a lot of the other activism was in terms of things that were less legible behind the scenes.
In the late 60s a group of disabled students attending the university for the first time lived together in the Cowell Infirmary where they began to form a disability culture around shared hacking and tinkering activities. The group leader known as the Rolling Quads organized a protest against their rehabilitation counselor and demanded to do things for themselves and for each other. For example, they helped each other design ways to life in and out of bed, empty catheters, and open doorways without the help of non-disabled people. Eventually, they established a center for independent living, borrowing the term from the rehab profession in order to get funding, and used it to advance their own political projects, which were based on a 1960s era self-help, to it yourself ethos similar to that of the Black Panther Party's community clinics and the feminist women's health clinics based here in Berkeley. Activists created a model in which disabled people themselves worked as care providers for and with each other, and also politicized their attendance who helped with building accessible designs. This is what feminist disability study's scholar Alison Kafer refers to as a political relational model of disability in which the focus is interdependence and mutual aid.
The movement also claimed what they called a crip identity as a reclamation of the word cripple. This was an anti-assimilationist response to rehabilitation imperatives that disabled people must become productive citizens. Instead, activists claimed authority as design experts.
What's interesting about the historical documentation of the center for independent living is how similar it appeared to be to what today we would call a maker space. In Berkeley there were computer coding classes, so if you're in this image in the foreground there's this long printed sheet of code because it's the late 70s. Then there are also a number of students in this coding class, and you see that there are a couple people in wheelchairs and a teacher at the front.
The also had a wheelchair repair shop modeled after DIY bicycle repair shops, activist mapping, and accessibility auditing projects that collaborated with the college of environmental design. They also had design projects like the curb cuts I showed earlier. These activities underherded a phenomenon that I call crip technoscience are acts of designing, hacking, and tinkering as forms of disability politics against norms and social structures.
There are two images on this slide. The one on the left is a map of Berkeley's proposed curb cut route on Telegraph Avenue. This was drawn by Ruth Grimes who was an urban planning student here at Berkeley and an ally of the movement. This was kind of life a collaborative mapping exercise that was used to make the case for city funding of curb cuts. On the right is an experimental map designed by Eric Dibner, who at the bottom of this lined paper sheet in pen he signs his name Eric Dibner CIL for Center for Independent Living in place of an architect's signature. The image show a proposed ramp with notations of materials, and slopes and things like that. This is a kind of DIY architectural plan for a ramp.
As I explained in the beginning of my talk, the design of curb cuts and ramps was also a site of crip technoscience. Not only did disabled people protest in accessible environments, but they also designed friction as a way of building across disability coalition between wheelchair users and blind people using canes for mobility. Actually, the design of ramps also came to serve as kind of a metaphor of political leverage for the movement.
The movement philosophy also influenced Berkeley architecture professors Ray Lifchez and Barbara Winslow who employed disabled activists as user experts. Here are four images of scenario planning exercises in their studio which show architectural models. Then in the last image, a group of disabled people who are wheelchair users are gathered around the bottle to give feedback. Lifchez and Winslow worked with disability activists to write their book "Design for Independent Living", which translated the philosophical rejection of biomedical and rehabilitation models, as well as the typical architectural focus on foreign and aesthetics and argued instead that disabled people are the real experts on built environments. The book has extensive images of disabled people engaging in Berkeley's counterculture, building social networks, engaging in intimate and sexual relationships, parenting, dancing, and other representations that challenge the rehabilitation imperative to merely become more productive through accessibility.
Emblematic of the movement's crip technoscience ethos, Lifchez and Winslow offer the concept of non-conforming users, illustrating this with an image of a power chair user wheeling against traffic on a street with curb cuts. This concept offered to designers that users will sometimes refuse constraints of an available design and behave differently, and maybe even engage in unpredictable ways that ought to be understood and appreciated.
I just want to pause here for a moment to say that in my research lab, which is called the Cripple Design Lab, we actually replicate a lot of the experiments from the early Center for Independent Living and we do this in order to experiment with different ways of knowing and how they can shape design, but also to expand the boundaries of the university. We're a collective of disabled designers and makers. Some of our projects include accessibility mapping. There's a project called Mapping Access. Here I'm showing a screenshot of one of our maps, which is a kind of campus map. You see a lot of trees, they're colorful dots, and then there are these popups with accessibility information.
Then the other is Contra, which is a podcast on disability design justice in the life world. A new episode just aired this morning with Alice Wong where we talked about crip technoscience and critical access. Here I'm just showing the logo a bit, which is black text against a white background. I'm happy to talk about this more in the Q&A.
The independent learning movement is best known for the 1977 504 Sit-in at the Department of Health Education and Welfare, which was a 25 day occupation. The image here shows disabled protestors walking, rolling, and user white canes, taking a ramp into the building for the sit-in. By many accounts, crip technoscience, enabled by disabled peoples' ingenuity and hacking skills also made this sit-in successful.
Corbett O'Toole who's here in her book "Fading Scars" tells the story of how disabled people rigged refrigerators from found materials and used ASL to communicate when the phone lines were cut off. This enabled the longevity of the sit-in.
This event is also remembered as being supported by the Black Panthers. Sue Schweik has shown that the protest was in part organized by disabled Black Panther Bradley Wilmax and his attendant Chuck Jackson.
The Independent living movement through those protests and different activities was challenging the medicalization paradigm of rehabilitation. but norms of race and gender still persisted. As O'Toole has noted, the Bancroft collection on movement actually doesn't included very many people of color, so the archives of the history of this event are extremely white.
In discussions of the 504 Sit-in, and in claims made by activists, we once again find a post-racial narrative about civil rights laws, that laws protecting black citizens had passed and were successful, and that the time had come for disability protections as a new civil right. This ignored the predominant whiteness of the milieu in which disability rights were materializing, as well as in the local community.
I'll just flag here for anyone who's thinking about the history of the concept of intersectionality, that this was a year before the Combahee River Collective issues their statement that was one of the foundational texts of intersectionality. That was in 1970, and then in 1989 Kimberle Crenshaw wrote her article on intersectionality. This is definitely before there's a public discourse of intersectionality the way that there is in our culture today. Ultimately, the 504 protest was successful and many of the leaders of the movement went on to work in the area of code compliance. Codes codified rehabilitation models of the body as a primary source of information about disability for architects.
In the 80s and 90s there are tons of advertisements, like the one I'm showing here. This is from a company called Medinorm and it makes ergonomic kitchens. Once again, there's as white woman who's a wheelchair user in the kitchen. Race is very unmarked here as well. But there are some products that have a very different representation of race and gender.
This is the Huey Saturn, an architectural drafting table named for Black Panther Huey Newton. The image has a young white woman who's sitting in a desk chair, so she's not in a kitchen, so that's good, so she an architecture student. Then there's also an image of a black man with an Afro who is a wheelchair user. They're using the same desk and the text says, "No need to buy special drafting equipment for the handicapped. No budget waste. No time waste. No use waste." It's simultaneously representing difference, and economizing it and adopting this idea that disabled people are an economic burden and then saying this is not an economic burden. This looks like something resembling intersectionality, but it's actually not. It's kind of an emblematic example the black feminists give of how gender is represented as white women, blackness is represented as black men, and of course black women, black disabled women are not part of this picture. It also doesn't address systematic inequalities or intersection, so we might wonder if the Huey Saturn actually changed the admission rates for black disabled men and white women, and black women and black disabled women in architecture schools.
After the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, there emerged a narrative similar to that post-racial narrative that now there is a disability civil rights law, which meant that ableism was over and the time had come to focus on disabled consumers instead of on civil rights. That kind of liberal narrative was also working against disabled people. The notion of a disability consumer market became increasingly non-explicit, that means disability is unmarked, and the focus became more on aging and luxury goods, similar to that house in Ohio I showed at the beginning.
This is an advertisement for Leviton, a lighting manufacturer, and they advertise universal design in the same package with home security lighting. The images show three generations of a nuclear family in this well-lit living room and then the exterior of two very large houses with lots of lighting. This really recalls the racialization and securitization of the suburbs as this place that needs to somehow be protected with bright lighting. There isn't any apparent disability or even discussion of disability in this whole advertisement. The only thing I could imagine where there could be a link is if there are grandparents in the image.
These representations also intersect with regimes of neo-liberal austerity because not only are disabled people required to be productive in order to become consumers and gain access both in the law and in the market, but when the market becomes responsible for certain kinds of accessibility it an also take it away. That's something that's coming up right now in the straw ban debates, which many of us have been talking of.
In architectural education the language of design for all also continued. A project called Teaching Design For All later became the Universal Design Education Project. In these projects the leaders of accessibility education and architecture schools debated what issues fell under the umbrella of accessibility and design for all. They really decided to maintain a focus on rehabilitation notions of usability, but they made explicit decisions not to include homelessness, incarceration, or race. These are documented in transcripts of conferences and stuff like that.
They also adopted very safe issues around gender. For example, in the 90s shopping malls were starting to have these family restrooms and the universal design folks decided to appropriate that as an accessible space. This later became the type of space that we would talk about in terms of a transinclusive, all-gender restroom, but the language of it was very much based on the family unit. In a lot of places it continues to be about family signage it's often used to exclude trans people from those spaces.
In the present day, ADA accessibility has also become a code compliance strategy, but not a design philosophy of anti-ableism. In my current book project called "Enliven City" I'm starting efforts to promote urban livability and sustainability in contemporary cities, looking at the textures of both human and non-human life and non-life that urban development invokes, so everything from tropes of blight, pathologization, and regeneration, to efforts to green and make more bike friendly cities and things like that.
My primary argument with this project was that efforts to promote population health through the built environment are also driving gentrification that has a negative affect on disabled people.z
Although in my ethnographic sites most designs are ADA accessible, there are also a lot of anti-disability trends that circumvent accessibility. The first image on the right is a Normate Template and then just the cover of the city paper is for Nashville. The headline says, "Can Nashville design healthier citizens?" Thinking about what types of populations are shaped through things like exercise, promotion, public structures, imperatives to take the stairs.
Then in the image on the right, this is from an Open Streets Festival, which is when the streets are shut off for pedestrians and bicyclists. It's a kind of quintessential image of a vital street life as one that's also consumer-oriented and involves things like human power transportation. In this project I'm building on Gina Kim's concept of crip-of-color critique, which she argues doesn't simply focus on disability in terms of legible belonging within a civil rights category, but also investigates the systematic devaluation and subsequent disablement of non-normative minds and bodies, so I'm looking at resistances to livable from devalued body minds and paying attention to the users who are not consider disabled in the ADA, but whose disabilities are often produced by development and unevenly distributed economic growth. For example, construction workers who are hurt and killed in the condo boom who have these public funerals as direct action, unhoused people who protest development, and also landscapes that are harmed and extracted.
This project is also part of a collaborative thing that I'm doing with architect Johnna Keller, and Margaret Price called Sustaining Access, about the intersections of critical sustainability and disability studies.
I'm going to conclude now by discussing the contemporary disability justice movement led by disabled people of color and queer disabled people and how its philosophies can shape critical approaches to access.
The disability justice movement philosophy challenges disability rights frameworks that ignore intersectionality and focus on legal rather than material justice, and that mandate productive citizenship. Here I'm thinking of organizers and movement leaders, such a Mia Mingus, Patricia Burn, Leroy Moore, Alice Wong, Stacy Milburn, and others. Disability justice principles such as interdependence and collective access speak to the critiques and genealogies I've offered today. In some way, they replicate that kind of independent living movement ideology. Projects around collective access recall the mutual aid projects I was talking about earlier and new campaigns such as #accessislove, which is shown here. This is a sticker that says "Access is solidarity, is disability justice, is love" and the "O" in "love" is a heart. These we frame access as hospitality and kinship, rather than consumerism. This particular campaign raises money to benefit trans justice.
This is another image. This is drawing by Micah Bazant who worked with Sins Invalid, a disability justice collective. The text says, "Disability justice means resisting together from solitary cells to open air prisons, to exist is to resist." There's an image of a prisoner who's a wheelchair user reaching out to a person who is an amputee who's a representation of a Palestinian person.
Disability justice arguments and representations like these not only challenge the neo-liberal precarity and gender by insurance, frameworks, Medicaid work requirements, but they also call attention to how gentrification, housing insecurity, police brutality, colonial occupations, and mass incarceration are disability issues. I want to argue that these can and also should be core design issues for accessibility and universal design. The designers who are already addressing these social justice issues, from refusing to build walls and spaces of solitary confinement, to creating trans inclusive bathrooms should build solidarity with and adopt frameworks from disability justice rather than rehabilitation and legal standards as the philosophical basis of their work.
Reorienting universal design toward disability justice lets us imagine futures in which designers and activists do not invoke post-racialism and other narrow conceptions of the user to define who counts as all. But these futures also requires realigning universal design's relationship to disability. If the stories we tell about bodies and users matter for questions of justice, then it is with more accountable, historical, knowing-making that we must begin. Thank you.