Disability, Inequity and Dignity in the Built Environment
Imogen S.B. Howe (Architect)
Inaccessible kerb, late 20th century. Division of Medicine and Science collections, Smithsonian.
The built environment has historically been designed for idealised and standardised bodies, an approach which dates back at least to Vitruvius’ proportioning systems, and which was popularised and further developed in Europe throughout the Renaissance and centuries beyond. In more recent history, this approach to design is enforced and perpetuated by building codes and industry standards as well as documents like Ernst Neufert’s Architects Data and systems like Le Corbusier’s Modulor. The major problem with these codes and systems is that by designing for a standard, or norm, they encourage a design response which generalises the human condition. It is surprising that, in the 21st Century, when we are more aware than ever of the breadth of human needs and expression, our contemporary designs for the built environment are still intrinsically marginalising in ways that are both subtle and overt, for people whose needs deviate from this idealised norm.
In 2011 I presented research  into the issues of marginalisation for wheelchair users in relation to available clothing options. Clothing is intimately linked to identity and self-expression. Key observations were that the design of clothing for this group tends to be primarily medical or functional, focussing on safe clothing that is easy to put on or take off like tracksuits or gowns, but overlooks emotional and aesthetic needs of users for self-expression. By contrast, the general clothing market is endlessly diverse, creating huge variety in options for people who are closer to a ‘norm’ but marginalising those whose needs are different. Furthermore, clothing options which target the wheelchair user community are generally overly pragmatic and often simply ugly. Respondents consistently identified that this sends a clear negative message to them about how they are perceived and valued by society.
These issues are not limited to fashion design. Despite anti-discrimination legislation, marginalisation in the design of the built environment persists, albeit often subtle in nature and easily overlooked by those who are not victims of it. For example, one might think that a solution which affords access to a building is unquestionably inclusive and positive. However, it’s not that simple. Providing access to a building is the bare minimum. To create truly inclusive, equitable design, designers must empathically design for the diversity of building users at the outset. Designers must understand that solutions cannot be solely pragmatic and must be aware of subtler issues of marginalisation that relate to experience, perception and dignity.
There is hope that change is coming. Interest and research in the field of disability and space is increasing. What is evident is that more sophisticated design methods and educational programs are required to facilitate equitable design solutions. Programs like the DisOrdinary Architecture Project , a collaboration between built environment professionals, disabled artists, students and educators, are changing the conversation. We need to furnish designers with knowledge and tools which empower them to recognise marginalisation in the design process, and to promote dignified design solutions for a broader, more diverse community.
Gunawan, S. (2018). Starting from "New Normal(s)": Non-normative Design Methodologies in Architecture Education. The Funambulist, The Space of Ableism.
Howe, I. (2011). Fashioning Identity: Inclusive Clothing Design and Spinal Cord Injury. Paper presented at Include 2011, London.
Boys, J. (2018). The DisOrdinary Architecture Project: A Handy Guide for Doing Disability Differently in Architecture and Urban Design. The Funambulist, The Space of Ableism.