Universal accessibility in the built environment fundamentally changes how the differently bodied are able to live, and should be a paramount concern of planners and architects. Instead of just meeting ADA-compliance, this can foster inclusivity of and grant full rights to all people. Disability studies has an interesting place in urbanism: it can’t lose itself in nostalgia about “the way we used to do it,” but through the future implementation of current tools, cities have the potential to create the greatest improvement in civil rights for people experiencing disabilities. While acknowledging the need to not center on the able-bodied, we can recognize how accessibility implementations genuinely improve all of our lives, whether we’re having a conversation with someone who previously couldn’t share the space with us, just toting luggage, or thinking about what circumstances we may be in later in life. With this recognition, greater universality in design can be a priority.

Over time, the definition of disability has shifted from one exclusively focused on an individual’s functional and economic deficiencies to one that acknowledges how social and physical environments create the impairment contextually. The trend is the belief that individuals are not disabled, but that places inhibit a class of citizens by design, including those using wheelchairs, with strollers, and recovering from injuries. Ignoring this interaction, we put ourselves at risk of exclusion at any point. Disability is a state we all experience as infants, sometimes are privileged out of for a period, and generally return to later. In the words of the late disability studies professor Tobin Siebers, “Most people become disabled over the course of their life. This truth has been accepted only with difficultly by mainstream society; it prefers to think of people with disabilities as a small population, a stable population, that nevertheless makes enormous claims on the resources of everyone else. (…) The cycle of life runs in actuality from disability to temporary ability back to disability, and that only if you are among the most fortunate, among those who do not fall ill or suffer a severe accident,” (742). As he mentions, despite being something we all experience, society looks down on and “others” people experiencing disabilities, while glorifying standards of attractiveness and fitness. We’re frightened by the truth that our body won’t always be an image of pleasure that can meet the established expectations, Siebers relates to Freud’s concept of the ego (743).

The implementation of accessible spaces is often seen as charity and merely meeting minimum standards. It is not often seen as fulfilling a legal right to freedom of movement requiring the same kind of environmental change as desegregation of public facilities after Jim Crow laws were removed. The individual medical treatment of disability has historically prevented civil rights movements of disabled persons from taking off, seeing their bodies as something to fix rather than as part of their identity, and seeing that view as non-discriminatory and benevolent. USC Professor Harlan Hahn, who lost mobility during childhood to polio, elaborated:

The prevalence of patronizing views of disability may explain the failure of many non-disabled professionals to grasp the linkage between perceptions and policy or to recognize persons with disabilities as a minority group. Where disability appeared to be a trait that was too negative to permit the formation of a firm sense of political identity, prevailing opinions of the nondisabled majority also seemed to be benign and sympathetic. (279)

When considering accessibility a human right, we forgo the common perception that disabled people are an economic burden on everyone, in the same way clean water is non-negotiable and we don’t view people with pity when we provide it. As Prince relays from disability activist talking points, in a world with ramps and elevators, the able-bodied are the ones requiring the resources of duplicate chairs to be comfortably abled, something that’s never questioned.

A common view of urbanization, founded in the late 19th century work of German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies, sees modern cities as “lonely crowds,” and looks back at small town tight-knit communities nostalgically, where people apparently cared more about their neighbors and became less divisive. Professor Michael Prince described where disabled people fit in to that idealistic picture:

The history of urbanization for people with disabilities involves a history of institutional segregation, sterilization, charitable responses to needs, stigma and prejudice, and the medicalization of conditions and identities. Urbanization, as a shift from agricultural to industrial labour, fundamentally altered the nature of paid work, family relationships and social networks, producing new impairments associated with factory work and raising issues, from the logic of capitalism, about the employability of people with handicaps. (Disability Studies and Urban Perspectives: Drawing Out Themes)

He continues, letting us know this nostalgia isn’t very useful coming from a disability studies perspective:

There are few regrets over the passing of these elements of past community life. Many features of “the good old days” were far from good for many people with disabilities. Much of what cities and communities contained and offered in these good old days, were out of bounds for many people with disabilities. (Disability Studies and Urban Perspectives: Drawing Out Themes)

Complacence under recent improvements, such as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, is also not worthwhile. Prince’s article mentions Michael Foucault’s analysis that urban society continues to contain “zones of darkness and disorder–misconceptions, fears, silences, obstructions and barriers to recognition, respect and resources.” For example, just 21% of New York’s subway stations are equipped with elevators. With a similar mix of accessible and inaccessible transit services, one study in London found that half of the most frequently ridden trips took at least 50% longer when requiring wheelchair access, greatly decreasing the free time in a commuter’s day (Ferrari). While the ADA lacks any kind of “grandfather” clause that would allow older facilities to remain inaccessible, it only requires retrofits when the task is “readily achievable”. Being readily achievable is an ongoing evaluation on whether the removal of barriers can be “easily accomplished without much difficulty or expense,” something that’s rare in the case of elevators, which typically cost tens of thousands of dollars. This language suggests an absolute minimum priority for inclusion of disabled people, as if it should only be done when cheap enough to be an afterthought (“ADA Frequently Asked Questions”). These barriers are likely a large reason why the unemployment rate among the disabled is over double the national rate, at 10.7%. Jack Fischer, a World War II veteran and inventor of the cut curb, wrote that, “These cement ramps in many instances mean the difference between disabled veterans and disabled non-veterans having employment, as with the ramps a person confined to a wheel chair, on crutches or wearing an artificial limb is able to get to a place of employment unaided,” (Brown). The same holds true of any accessibility implementation that improves the time gap in mobility. When life is less work, work becomes more possible.

The ADA is focused on accommodations, including businesses and public space, and does not regulate residences. This means the majority of housing, even brand new, fails to accommodate many guests or potential residents. This distinction is life changing, limiting people from spending non-commercial time with people in private spaces like most take for granted (“ADA Frequently Asked Questions”).

Universal design is “the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.” The term and research into the subject was pioneered by architect Ronald Mace, who contracted polio at the age of 9 and died from its complications at 58. Instead of merely making concessions to the disabled, he specifically clarified that no one constantly fits the definition of “normal” that the world has historically been designed for, so there should be a great broadening of the understanding of the user, addressing all subtleties (Mace). Major infrastructure strides made in the past 30 years, like lever door handles, curb cuts, kneeling low-floor buses with audio announcements, braille signage, and large bathroom stalls, are all hopeful examples of universal design. In places like The Netherlands, people in motorized and hand-pedal wheelchairs frequently utilize the extensive and well-protected bicycling path network, joining in on the most efficient way to get around the city (BicycleDutch). Universal design makes all of our lives easier when in different contexts, like pushing a stroller, and allows us to think that we’re making a space easier for us, not dishing “them” a bone. It’s best to be hopeful, “of what reforms and innovations might be achievable to obtain more accessible and inclusive cities and diverse urban environments,” (Prince).

The automobile has a complex relationship with urban disabilities. On one hand, it can provide the rare identical mobility to those with disabilities as those without, so much so that, “some disabled individuals even say that they experience liberty most completely in the glass and metal cocoons of their cars where they are both free to control their own destinies and protected from the prying stares of passer-bys” (Hahn, 280). However, for those unable to drive or afford to drive, low density cities designed around the automobile are hostile. They require long distance treks between amenities in often secluded places with unmaintained or no sidewalks. For this reason, building accessible public transit with many immediately nearby places is absolutely necessary. Following the principles of universal design, this kind of urbanism improves the quality of life and reduces the expenses of all people.

The existence of areas with poorly accessible built environments has a studied real life effect on civic participation and outcomes. One study found that among those with mobility difficulties, those living in areas with poor sidewalk and street conditions have a 60% lower chance of voting than those around better street conditions. 30% of those with disabilities in the 2012 election reported difficulties due to the interaction between  their body and the built environment, finding broken elevators, obstructed pathways, too small of booths, and unreadable ballots, in addition to transportation (Fessler). As one person that had recently begun using a wheelchair described to Hahn:

I gained an enhanced appreciation of the importance of simple measures such as curbcuts to freedom of movement. Frequently, I found that I simple could not ‘get there from here.’ Often, I traveled countless blocks in futile search for an accessible route to my destination. Sometimes I have found paths formed by skateboards, baby carriages, and shopping carts. These modifications suggest that others also may have difficulty moving through the environment. (283-284)

This once again finds common need for universal design, though we must remember those with skateboards aren’t facing the same level of disenfranchisement. Additionally, people with eyesight impairments living in a heavily trafficked neighborhood are 20% less likely to seek preventative healthcare than those on calmer streets. One in five adults in the US has difficulty walking longer distances unaided, and this group is 50% less likely to engage in conversations on the street than the remaining population, a difference that drops with improved safety measures. Well-lit streets are a boon to all, but have this massive improvement in the sociability of the physically vulnerable. (Clarke).

As we’ve seen, within disability studies there’s a complex duality of wanting to understand disability as a unifying minority group characteristic that doesn’t need to be fixed, and spreading the understanding that we all at times experience disablement throughout life and have no reason to “other” people because of it. Both models create more nuanced empathy and necessitate the deliberately inclusive creation of environments. Designing an urban space adaptable to the needs of all people, not just the ever-fleeting “normal”, is not an idealistic pipe dream. It’s one of the most essential tasks for cities to achieve and put effort behind. When all people have genuinely equitable access to the public sphere, the concerns and unique experiences of all people can be heard. To do this, we need policy decisions stronger than just the bare minimum of the ADA, decisions that will prevent barriers from forming on the principle that all people deserve equity and interaction with others. When we can imagine why our private homes should have wheelchair access, we’ll have gotten somewhere. No inherent aspect of a person should put great difficulty on being part of the cultural, political, and social web of city life that makes life beautiful. Society can choose to be inclusive by designing for those aspects, and doing so is the only non-oppressive choice. Through simple current building choices we can create a future with spaces that don’t inhibit the ability of the differently bodied, which will over time remove isolation and social stigma.

Works Cited

Featured image by Google Streetview, 2014. Aurora Bridge, Seattle, WA.

“ADA Frequently Asked Questions.” ADA National Network. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. <https://adata.org/faq-page>.

Brown, Steven E. “The Curb Ramps of Kalamazoo: Discovering Our Unrecorded History.” Independent Living Institute. N.p., 1999. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. <http://www.independentliving.org/docs3/brown99a.html>.

Clarke, Philippa, Els Nieuwenhuijsen, and Jennifer Ailshire. “Social Participation among Adults with Disabilities: The Role of the Urban Environment.” Disability and Health Journal 3.2 (2010): n. pag. Web.

Ferrari, Laura, Michele Berlingerio, Francesco Calabrese, and Jon Reades. “Improving the Accessibility of Urban Transportation Networks for People with Disabilities.” Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies 45 (2014): 27-40. Web.

Fessler, Pam. “Voters With Disabilities Fight For More Accessible Polling Places.” NPR. N.p., 24 Oct. 2016. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. <http://www.npr.org/2016/10/24/499177544/disabled-voters-fight-for-more-accessible-polling-places>.

Hahn, Harlan. “Disability and the Urban Environment: A Perspective on Los Angeles.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 4.3 (1986): 273-88. Web.

Mace, Ronald L. “Ronald L Mace: Last Speech – A Perspective on Universal Design.” Center for Universal Design. North Carolina State University, Aug. 1998. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>.

Prince, Michael J. “Inclusive City Life: Persons with Disabilities and the Politics of Difference.” Disability Studies Quarterly 28.1 (2008): n. pag. Web.

Siebers, Tobin. “Disability in Theory: From Social Constructionism to the New Realism of the Body.” American Literary History 13.4 (2001): 737-54. Web.

Who Else Benefits from the Dutch Cycling Infrastructure. YouTube. BicycleDutch, 5 Dec. 2012. Web. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSGx3HSjKDo>.