Last updated on April 30, 2020
Sometimes when people try to talk about those with disabilities in a way that makes them feel comfortable, they can end up adding to stigmas. Post-disability discourse is the way society discusses and views disability after the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The thought process is that since there are more inclusive laws for people with disabilities now, then they don’t face discrimination anymore, which is entirely untrue. It encompasses many different ways of discussing disabilities, and often these ways are problematic. The three major discourses are disability universalism (we are all disabled), disability neutrality (design for everyone, rather than design for disability), and anti-disability (design focused on eliminating disability).
What’s the problem?
There are multiple reasons as to why this discourse is problematic. First of all, disability universalism erases the identity of people with disabilities. Saying that “everyone is disabled” undermines the struggles and unique experiences a person with disabilities encounters as part of their everyday life. It is not right for an able-bodied person to act like they experience the world the same way a person with disabilities does, and saying so is ignoring the stigma and discrimination that continues to hurt these people. On the other hand, disability neutrality is almost like thinking of the word “disability” as a bad word. Some people think that mentioning disability is always negative and stigmatizing, so they avoid it and instead focus on designing for everyone. When disability is not discussed, inclusion is not the goal, and important elements of design that could be very helpful are left out. Lastly, anti-disability is focused on eliminating disability and thinking of it as a negative thing that should be fixed in some way. Activist and professor Alison Kafer describes what is wrong with this, saying “to eliminate disability is to eliminate the possibility of discovering alternative ways of being in the world, to foreclose the possibility of recognizing and valuing our independence.” Thinking of disability as something in need of elimination is just part of the oppression that people with disabilities face.
Getting it Right
One example of an organization that focuses on accessibility specifically for people with disabilities is Visit Philadelphia. The website has a section called “Accessible Philadelphia,” which is a guide to the design features of many different organizations, museums, public transportation, and hotels that are accessible for people with disabilities. The website doesn’t gloss over the functions of these places as “design for everyone;” it specifically shows the different features for different disabilities available in Philadelphia. Something that impressed me was the range of disabilities discussed, including visual and hearing impairments and sensory difficulties due to autism.
How to Correct it
In order to try and push the discourse about disabilities in a way that is respectful and inclusive, the first step is education. In trying to be polite, people often do not know that how they are speaking is actually degrading or dismissive. By reading articles and literature on how to speak about disabilities, a person can become more educated on the subject, and it can help make a more comfortable and inclusive environment for everyone. This is why at Project Bloom, we strive to educate people on the ways architecture is often inaccessible.
-Emma Wright, 2021