Architecture, by virtue of its impact on the world we inhabit, has always had the ability to impact a range of social groups. The architecture of the built environment and the people we interact with informs much of our experience. It is, therefore, no surprise that as society progresses to the point that a variety of people begin to gain a voice to showcase their point of view of the world, there is a corresponding increase in the call for creating more inclusive and accessible spaces.
This relationship between architecture, society, and self forms the core of Jos Boys’ Doing Disability Differently: An Alternative Handbook on Architecture, Disability and Designing for Everyday Life. If the disability is often considered a problem to be solved, how would architecture change if the disability was instead used as the starting point for design?
The author, Jos Boys, is an architect, educator, and activist for inclusivity. She has been co-director of The DisOrdinary Architecture Project since 2008, which invites disabled artists and architects to collaborate and contribute to discussions about accessibility in various creative fields. She has researched the narratives in society regarding disability, and this has been the impetus to her book, Doing Disability Differently.
The book aims to spark discussions about how to reframe ‘normality’ and ‘disability’ and thereby allow for more innovation during design that aids in inclusivity. She posits that rather than considering disability as a practical consideration that needs to be solved separately from the design process, the design must instead use disability and diverse body types as a starting point that integrates into design considerations.
Doing so would thereby require a critical rethinking of the current ‘norms and standards’ since those are biased towards abled bodies.
In the book, Jos Boys discusses the need to recontextualize how social narratives and practices impose barriers and restrictions on disabled people. She explains how despite the superficial narrative shifting towards inclusivity, often the implicit practices and understandings still go unchallenged. Accessibility, therefore, is often a functional afterthought that needs to be added into a design, instead of one of the factors taken into consideration from the start.
Jos Boys argues that by separating disability into a special category, studies on the subject get relegated and do not progress along with the rest of architecture, which gets more varied exploration. As a result, current trends towards accessibility follow more outdated ideas and regulations that ensure it is treated as a requirement to be fulfilled rather than an essential aspect of space-making.
The Fluidity of Dis/ability
Furthermore, Jos Boys points out that conversations regarding accessibility often do not involve people from that group. While disabled artists and architects are increasingly making incredible contributions to inclusive design, there is a predisposition to view disabled individuals as passive and damaged, meaning that their achievements are often treated as something that happened despite their disability, rather than because of or independent of it.
Furthermore, she explains the paradox of how disability and ability are often not a binary – there are situations where a person can become disabled either temporarily or over time. Dis/ability, therefore, is a fluid and shifting barrier that often is imposed by assumptions on what is “normal”, even though normality is often varied by culture and region, even for ‘abled’ people. She thus argues that rather than classifying people as abled and disabled, disability and ability should be reframed as a natural part of life that overlaps and varies over time.
Architecture and Disability
The book finally discusses the various ways that the experience of disabled people has been mapped out and compared to that of non-disabled people. Jos Boys brings up works by disabled people that aim to challenge and overturn cultural norms and assumptions.
The book further discusses the theme of aids for various activities and how those meant for disabled people are often viewed differently from aids meant for non-disabled. It proposes that this concept of varied experiences be deeply rooted in the conceptualization of spaces, therefore allowing for this inclusivity to inform the design.
Doing Disability Differently is intended to show how society views disability and how the concept of ‘normal’ and ‘common sense’ imposes barriers to more in-depth discourse on disability and inclusivity. It further showcases how inclusivity has been tackled in art and architecture and is meant to provide a starting point to initiate more complex, interdisciplinary discussions about how to reframe our ideas and views of the design process.
The book features works from a variety of artists and architects that focus on how the lines between ability and disability are often fluid and changeable, rather than the rigid boundaries that are currently assumed to be the rule.
The book is an engaging, detailed compilation of research that acts as an integral part of understanding how disability and disabled communities experience everyday life and the built environment. It further showcases the subconscious biases that inform architectural discourse and practices that act as obstacles that strengthen the divide between disability and ability.
The writing is clear and easy to follow, and it is thought-provoking to realize how much of society’s biases are internalized and performed on a daily basis, thereby unconsciously alienating people with disabilities, despite the current need for inclusivity and accessibility.