they adopted a cultural understanding of disabled people as a dis- advantaged minority group that exists in relation to other spatially excluded populations, such as children, elderly people, and people of different sizes.
While few would object to the promise of a more usable world for everyone, I argue that the portrayal of Universal Design as simply a form of neutral, common sense “good design” (and not design that ensures accessibility for disabled users) distances this approach from the civil rights mandates of the ADA and, by extension, from the notion of disability itself.
These laws, Susan Schweik (2009, 5) argues, targeted the figure of the “unsightly beggar,” a figure often imagined as a disabled panhandler, but revealed a broader ideolog- ical investment in individualism, “which enabled the law’s support- ers to position disability and begging as individual problems rather than relating them to broader societal problems,” such as economic and racial inequities.
Given the right equipment and appropriate built environment, injured soldiers could work in factories, drive automobiles, and realize the American Dream. Disabled people, in other words, could become normal by design
Accessibility practices premised upon functional limitation likewise positioned architects, industrial designers, and engineers (rather than physicians) as experts with the tools to cor- rect perceived limitations in a user’s performance in the name of pro- ductivity, thereby reinforcing ideologies of ability
The disability culture that emerged from these efforts offered a view of disability as culturally vibrant and politically resourceful. Disability culture embraced a “counter-eu- genic logic,” according to which societies should embrace, rather than eliminate, disabled people’s unique ways of relating to and engaging with one another (Garland-Thomson 2012, 341). When disabled people created culture and community, they challenged the association of disability with tragedy, pain, and decreased quality of life.
The key difference between the social model and the “functional limitation” model, however, was the new emphasis on disability as a cultural resource that should be valued and preserved through accessible built environments.
When these laws were enforced as a result of high-profile activist protests and sit-ins, their enforcement mechanisms – standardized codes and checklists – prioritized the needs of specific disabled people – particularly wheelchair users – who had been subjects of rehabilitation research. This was evident in the way that wheelchair users became emblematic of the broader disability community with the adoption of the “International Symbol of Access” on accessible parking placards and other signage
By emphasizing that Universal Design was a form of “good design,” Mace strategically framed accessibility for all users (a radical, challenging, and far-reaching imperative) as a simple, com- mon sense practice. This enabled him to draw upon disability rights, culture, and anti-institutionalization positions to challenge architects’ conceptions of disabled people as an insignificant and powerless population and their assumptions about accessibility as inherently tied to distasteful institutional or medical aesthetics
Universal Design’s departure from disability rights discourses in the post-ADA era rested upon the assumption that civil rights legisla- tion had adequately addressed ableism by creating an equal playing field between disabled and non-disabled people, such that it was no longer necessary to discuss oppression based on disability.
From the perspective of critical disability theory, however, conflat- ing any type of imperfect user experience with marginalization and disability treats identities and embodiments as untouched by power and privilege. This conflation risks “erasing the line between disabled and non disabled people” (Linton 1998, 13) by assuming that every- one is or will become somewhat functionally limited at some point and implying an equal playing field in user experiences of design. It suggests that enhancing usability or convenience for normate users is a social goal equivalent to addressing discrimination against mis- fitting users.
Like post-racial arguments that race is biologically nonexistent and that all people are thus de facto equal, the notion that more thoughtful design can (and should) eliminate disability ignores the persistence of inequality, devaluation, and disqualifica- tion that would remain even if more inclusive consumer products were made available to people of all “abilities.”
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