Spatial Abolition and Disability Justice

From Public Books:

In her new book, What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World, the artist and design researcher Sara Hendren describes an assignment her engineering students undertook to redesign a lectern. Hendren introduces us to Amanda Cachia, a curator with a form of dwarfism, who challenges the students to think beyond the simple engineering specifications of an imaginary ideal form and to design specifically for her needs. One can imagine the range of solutions that eager engineering students might have offered up: a robotic lectern, or one outfitted with a lift. Usually, Hendren writes, Cachia has to undergo the ritual of “bringing her body to the dimensions of a room at odds with her physicality,” typically involving a pedestal that she stands on to reach the height of an existing lectern.

Instead, Cachia wanted a lectern scaled to her dimensions, one that she could easily transport to her speaking engagements. Hendren’s students responded to this call; now, each time Cachia speaks at this new lectern, the audience must adapt to her. Changing that relationship—between speaker, stage, and audience—changes the possibilities of the room itself. The lectern no longer sits above the heads of those seated in a room. As a result of this spatial shift, an audience member would likely become very aware of all the other sensory details: how the seating is arranged, the height of doorknobs and tables, the various ambient sounds. This newly oriented space highlights how disability is not a lack, but a space of possibility for other ways of being and noticing. “Ability and disability may be in part about the physical state of the body,” Hendren writes, “but they are also produced by the relative flexibility or rigidity of the built world.”

The most famous political achievement of the disability justice movement in the United States has been the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark civil rights law that prohibited discrimination based on disability. It is, arguably, one of the most influential policy forces on the shape and form of the urban built environment, mandating things we now take for granted, such as curb cuts and pedestrian signals. According to the ADA framework, an adequate solution to Cachia’s predicament might have been to require the lecture hall to have a platform ready at all times, one that could be adjusted to enable speakers, regardless of their physical dimensions, to reach the microphone.

Yet, as scholars such as Aimi Hamraie and Jos Boys have shown, stories of curb cuts, ramps, and other design innovations are incomplete, and have spun into a popular narrative of universal or inclusive design. This narrative risks turning the politics of disability into simple matters of logistics and compliance. It erases real class, gendered, and racial differences in terms of access to space, and it ignores the different types of “physical, sensory, and mental access needs of different disabled users.” There are deep flaws in an accessibility framework; as the disability and transformative-justice scholar Mia Mingus says, “We don’t want to simply join the ranks of the privileged; we want to dismantle those ranks and the systems that maintain them.”

These are key themes that underpin Sara Hendren’s What Can a Body Do?, which explores and expands on the relationships between the built world, design, and disabilities. If Hendren is reframing design and how we approach the designed and built environment through the lens of disability justice, Liat Ben-Moshe extends that lens to our geographies—focusing more fully on spatial relationships—in her new book, Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition. A critical geographer and prison abolitionist, Ben-Moshe provides a groundbreaking connection between disability justice and prison abolition.

Disabled people—nuanced and complex individuals who are forced to both adapt to the world and make the world adapt to them—have a rich history of influencing the designed and built world. Yet there is a lack of nuance and complexity to how disability is understood and conceptualized in both academic and popular portrayals. Revealing the multiple histories of disability justice—as Hendren and Ben-Moshe do—can expand how we think of and design the places we build beyond the simple concepts of access and inclusion, to encompass questions of care, vulnerability, agency, maintenance, and difference.

The Social Model of Disability

As the noted disability studies theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, author of Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (1997), has said, “I want to move disability from the realm of medicine into that of political minorities, to recast it from a form of pathology to a form of ethnicity.” Disability, as a human condition, is salient almost everywhere once you learn how to notice it.

. . . .

By analyzing case studies such as that of Amanda Cachia’s new lectern, Hendren illustrates a powerful idea that holds potential for the fields of urbanism, architecture, and design: the social model of disability, which holds that being disabled is not simply a medical diagnosis, but a social phenomenon. For some, this can be a radical perspective, one that has many implications—notably, that disability is a “misfitting” of bodies and minds to the world one encounters and confronts. When that world is inflexible to people’s diverse needs, Hendren says, this misfitting limits certain individuals’ abilities to do things. In order to ground us in the concept of misfitting and the social model of disability, Hendren must first explain the history of “normalcy,” as it relates to the body.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Let’s see, if disabled individuals are to be though of as a different ethnic group than those who are not disabled, how does that make things better?

For one thing, we know that different ethnic groups always respect the values and rights of each other. We know that places where those of different ethnicity live in close proximity with one another have always been models of comity and good will.

Serbs and Croatians? Best buddies whenever they encounter each other.

Turks and Armenians? – One big happy family.

Hutu and Tutsi? – Always behaving in accordance with the inherent sisterhood and brotherhood that exists among all Africans

The Austro-Hungarian Empire – 15 major languages plus an unknown number of minor languages and dialects – would still be the world’s leading multi-ethnic power if it hadn’t collapsed into chaos in 1918.

World War I – no ethnic groups fighting there

World War II – ditto

Suffice to say, PG is not impressed with the benefits of defining disability as an ethnicity or any remotely similar solution to the problems of the disabled or the problems the larger society imposes on the disabled.

An old saying from Abraham Maslow, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” applies to some (not all) people with a facility for language. Basically, such folk love to solve problems linguistically by doing things like creating ethnic groups and constructing solutions from concepts that work perfectly in word and logic form, but not necessarily in real life. More than a few academics fall into such groups.

PG readily confesses that, as an attorney, he is a member of a group known for its facility with language. Laws are created by legislatures as written documents. Attorneys argue on behalf of their clients using spoken and written words. When a judge makes an order, she/he often says what the order is and then reduces the order to a written document.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this sort of structure of information and mandates so long as one realizes that it may not always work as anticipated in real life.

Those who commit crimes are punished in large part to deter them and others who may be similarly inclined from violating the law in the future. A felon may be incarcerated until, presumably she/he understands the wrongness of the crime committed and the fact that such actions will be punished severely. Once they’ve finished their punishment as specified by the law and court order(s), they’re ready to return into society as a free person.

If the words of the law and the courts worked as intended, no criminal would commit another crime. The punishment would fit the crime and the punishment would effectively prevent such a crime from occurring again because one and all would understand that the nature of the punishment far outweighed any sort of benefit a wrong-doer might gain from violating the law.

This all works great on paper. The words are carefully crafted by legislators elected to do what the public wants them to do – prevent crimes from happening.

However, in a phrase used by semanticists, “The word is not the thing.”

What’s the solution to Ms. Cachia’s problem with standard podiums if she’s not to be classified as a member of a new ethnic group or protected by a better version or stricter enforcement of The Americans with Disabilities Act?

A bit of research by PG disclosed an actual solution to Ms. Cachia’s issues. He doesn’t think any of the word-spinners in the OP were involved in creating the solution.

The solution was not words, but rather a thing – a portable lectern made from apparently inexpensive materials that Ms. Cachia could bring with her to her speaking opportunities. The lecturn provides a platform of an appropriate height so she could speak and present comfortably while referring to notes or other materials she might wish to consult during her presentations.

From an appearance standpoint, the lectern would complement Ms. Cachia’s physical appearance in the same manner as a conventional lectern would complement an individual of more commonly-found dimensions.

To the best of PG’s knowledge, no new ethnic groups, laws or regulations were created during the design and construction of Ms. Cachia’s new lectern.

Here are a couple of images of her lectern and Ms. Cachia using it:

4 thoughts on “Spatial Abolition and Disability Justice”

  1. A smart lady. NEVER count on anybody other than you to provide ANY equipment needed for your presentation. Seen this bite too many speakers in the heinie with no time to fix or do a workaround.
    This especially applies to AV and computer equipment.

  2. how long before people would start complaining that referring to people with a specific body size as ‘disabled’ is offensive?

    • My assumption is that they already do. To be honest though, I’ve lived through too many cycles of the euphemism treadmill to have any idea what currently accepted terminology is (and little interest in learning as, by the time I use the currently acceptable term it will already be out of date – and someone will tell me off. So I might as well use a word that someone has already decided is offensive).

      “Disabled” itself was regarded as sufficiently offensive that back in 1981 there was an attempt to replace it by “differently abled”, though I don’t think this really caught on, possibly because it was thought too silly even for the most committed advocates of change.

Comments are closed.