Spatial Abolition and Disability Justice

Revealing the multiple histories of disability justice can expand how we think of and design the places we build.

In her new book, What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World, the artist and design researcher Sara Hendren describes an assignment her engineering students undertook to redesign a lectern. Hendren introduces us to Amanda Cachia, a curator with a form of dwarfism, who challenges the students to think beyond the simple engineering specifications of an imaginary ideal form and to design specifically for her needs. One can imagine the range of solutions that eager engineering students might have offered up: a robotic lectern, or one outfitted with a lift. Usually, Hendren writes, Cachia has to undergo the ritual of “bringing her body to the dimensions of a room at odds with her physicality,” typically involving a pedestal that she stands on to reach the height of an existing lectern.

Instead, Cachia wanted a lectern scaled to her dimensions, one that she could easily transport to her speaking engagements. Hendren’s students responded to this call; now, each time Cachia speaks at this new lectern, the audience must adapt to her. Changing that relationship—between speaker, stage, and audience—changes the possibilities of the room itself. The lectern no longer sits above the heads of those seated in a room. As a result of this spatial shift, an audience member would likely become very aware of all the other sensory details: how the seating is arranged, the height of doorknobs and tables, the various ambient sounds. This newly oriented space highlights how disability is not a lack, but a space of possibility for other ways of being and noticing. “Ability and disability may be in part about the physical state of the body,” Hendren writes, “but they are also produced by the relative flexibility or rigidity of the built world.”

The most famous political achievement of the disability justice movement in the United States has been the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark civil rights law that prohibited discrimination based on disability. It is, arguably, one of the most influential policy forces on the shape and form of the urban built environment, mandating things we now take for granted, such as curb cuts and pedestrian signals. According to the ADA framework, an adequate solution to Cachia’s predicament might have been to require the lecture hall to have a platform ready at all times, one that could be adjusted to enable speakers, regardless of their physical dimensions, to reach the microphone.

Yet, as scholars such as Aimi Hamraie and Jos Boys have shown, stories of curb cuts, ramps, and other design innovations are incomplete, and have spun into a popular narrative of universal or inclusive design.1 This narrative risks turning the politics of disability into simple matters of logistics and compliance. It erases real class, gendered, and racial differences in terms of access to space, and it ignores the different types of “physical, sensory, and mental access needs of different disabled users.”2 There are deep flaws in an accessibility framework; as the disability and transformative-justice scholar Mia Mingus says, “We don’t want to simply join the ranks of the privileged; we want to dismantle those ranks and the systems that maintain them.”

These are key themes that underpin Sara Hendren’s What Can a Body Do?, which explores and expands on the relationships between the built world, design, and disabilities. If Hendren is reframing design and how we approach the designed and built environment through the lens of disability justice, Liat Ben-Moshe extends that lens to our geographies—focusing more fully on spatial relationships—in her new book, Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition. A critical geographer and prison abolitionist, Ben-Moshe provides a groundbreaking connection between disability justice and prison abolition.

Disabled people—nuanced and complex individuals who are forced to both adapt to the world and make the world adapt to them—have a rich history of influencing the designed and built world. Yet there is a lack of nuance and complexity to how disability is understood and conceptualized in both academic and popular portrayals. Revealing the multiple histories of disability justice—as Hendren and Ben-Moshe do—can expand how we think of and design the places we build beyond the simple concepts of access and inclusion, to encompass questions of care, vulnerability, agency, maintenance, and difference.


The Social Model of Disability

As the noted disability studies theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, author of Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (1997), has said, “I want to move disability from the realm of medicine into that of political minorities, to recast it from a form of pathology to a form of ethnicity.” Disability, as a human condition, is salient almost everywhere once you learn how to notice it.

Hendren’s What Can a Body Do? calls attention to the ubiquity of disability, showing how disability is a matter of asymmetric relationships among humans, and among humans and their many environments. Through a range of case studies, Hendren critically details the various ways disabled bodies and minds “meet” the built world at different scales and through different technologies and mediums. The focus is not on the wizardry of high-design prosthetics and technology, such as wheelchairs that can climb stairs or Olympics-ready running blades, but on the many creative and everyday ways that disabled people have taken agency over their own lives.

Poetically structured through concentric sections reminiscent of Charles and Ray Eames’s Powers of Ten, Hendren’s book starts with Limb, and moves outward from there to Chair, Room, Street, and, at last, Clock.3 There’s a cultural-material ecology at work here, which Hendren firmly grasps: “the human body is a relationship,” both to others and to the objects, spaces, structures, and systems that are always coming together or breaking apart.

By analyzing case studies such as that of Amanda Cachia’s new lectern, Hendren illustrates a powerful idea that holds potential for the fields of urbanism, architecture, and design: the social model of disability, which holds that being disabled is not simply a medical diagnosis, but a social phenomenon. For some, this can be a radical perspective, one that has many implications—notably, that disability is a “misfitting” of bodies and minds to the world one encounters and confronts. When that world is inflexible to people’s diverse needs, Hendren says, this misfitting limits certain individuals’ abilities to do things. In order to ground us in the concept of misfitting and the social model of disability, Hendren must first explain the history of “normalcy,” as it relates to the body.


Autism Aesthetics

By Michael Bérubé

Prior to the 19th century, the ideal human body was determined by the impossible standard of gods and angels, a useful organizing rhetoric for churches and monarchies. Afterward, with the secularization of science, statistics, Darwinism, and the collection of population data, the ideal became associated with what was most common—a useful rhetoric for the economic organization of market capitalism. As anyone whose regular childhood medical checkups involved being charted on a graph of percentiles knows, this is a logic of standardization that pervades everything. Just as the concept of whiteness has to be created and reproduced in order to support systems of racism, so does the concept of normal have to be defined in order to uphold ableism.

From late 2019 to early 2020, a solo exhibition at the Los Angeles gallery Murmurs by visual artist Emily Barker called attention to the ways in which banal design and architectural choices can exclude, how standardization can be violent toward anyone that deviates (through genetics, chance, misfortune, or any number of other factors) from what Hendren calls the “canopy of normalcy.” In the exhibition, titled Built to Scale, the artist, who moves through the world in a wheelchair, installed a transparent, plexiglass scale model of their kitchen, with the counters and cabinets installed at a height just out of reach, rendering visitors powerless.

The point, as Barker says, was to expose how “nearly every public and private space is built without consideration of non-normative bodies.” The exhibit’s power—similar to what Hendren does in her book—is to expose the unseen politics and designs of ableism and privilege, since “the hegemony of normalcy is, like other hegemonic practices, so effective because of its invisibility.”4 We have to go beyond accommodation in spaces not built for disabled people, since such accommodation serves to render them invisible.

The social model of disability is well known in the field of disability studies and among disability justice activists. It raises a number of urgent questions: What is architecture and planning if not the organizing of bodies in space? Who gets to go where? Who gets to live in one place versus another? Who has the political agency to exercise power over the shape and form of the built environment?

Disability is not a lack, but a space of possibility for other ways of being and noticing.

In a section on Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, DC, Hendren shows how designing from and with disabled knowledges can be a source of innovation. The school was built according to the tenets of DeafSpace—which prioritize sensory touch, open sight lines, and the full expressive use of the body. Students are able to walk on ramps so that they can sign without watching their step or scanning for what’s on the periphery; there are flexible seating arrangements with many sight lines, so that they can orient themselves toward one another; and wood furniture is used to reduce echo and absorb vibration. This is more than just a simple set of technical specifications—it is the inscription of deaf cultural values into the design of buildings.

When we ask, “What can a body do?” we are also asking other questions. What are the things that prevent us from leading lives of dignity? What are the disabling conditions of the world? The system of policing, in the United States and across the globe, is a disabling force. The racist systems of redlining and housing discrimination in the United States are also disabling conditions, as are a highway cut through a neighborhood and underfunded public transportation. Muffled, chaotic subway announcements; narrow, uneven, cracked sidewalks; dark spaces of the city that are unsafe for female-identifying, trans, and nonbinary people. In policy and design, the built environment is full of hostilities to nonnormative bodies and minds.

But rather than focus on the obstacles disabled communities face, Hendren’s book ripples with a sense of generative possibility around how these unique perspectives help us see the world in a different way and emancipate new ways of living together in it, otherwise.


The Political Force of Care

In the summer of 2019, I participated in a seminar led by Carmen Papalia, an artist who self-identifies as a nonvisual learner. As a visual artist who was suffering from vision loss and would go blind, he was forced to understand and navigate the world in new ways. Wanting to transmute this sense of perceptive shift, he devised a simple performance artwork called Blind Field Shuttle. In it, he invites participants to line up behind him, link arms, and close their eyes, as he leads them on a walking tour through an urban space.

Papalia’s performance piece, to some extent, resembles disability-simulation exercises, which are often intended to raise awareness but have drawn criticism for how they might “actually reinforce the inaccurate negative stereotypes that often limit opportunities for people with disabilities,” as Toby Olson has written.5 While that may be a fair observation to make of Blind Field Shuttle, the piece was less focused on simulating disability than on revealing the ways that we are dependent on each other, precisely because disability is not exceptional. Many people who have engaged with Carmen’s piece describe initial feelings of trepidation, nervousness, and vulnerability—having to trust what they could feel with their free hand and the verbal directions of Papalia, as he called out doors, stairs, entryways, railings, fences, curbs, and the changes in surface texture that he observed with his walking cane.

As someone born deaf / hard of hearing, whose hearing aids had terminally stopped working only a few days prior, the only way I could navigate during this experience was by feeling the movement and sway of the shoulder in front of me and the hand of the person behind me. The sensation of displaced embodiment was especially jarring: to see and hear nothing, only able to experience my own movement and the texture of different surfaces with my free hand; the rise and fall of going up and down stairs or slopes, one fragile body as part of a larger collective body snaking through this landscape. I was reminded of Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, a 2019 book of poetry that imagines a town that goes silent when a deaf boy is shot in the street by police forces. The townspeople’s dissent becomes coordinated by a new sign language of their making; in the book, Kaminsky writes that “silence is the invention of the hearing.”


Design with Disability

By Mara Mills et al.

Carmen’s piece also served as a reminder that the built environment can be dangerous, and that the places we inhabit are living indexes of the sounds, textures, surface levels, curves, air, and chemicals that we are always encountering. As we age, or as the climatic conditions of the planet continues to change all around us, our relationship to the world also changes.

We all go through various states of dependency throughout our lives; perhaps, then, disability itself is a universal feature of human life. This is not a call for universal design. In difference, there are always competing needs for every person in a given space. To honor that difference is to see that we are always collectively making spaces through our negotiations with one another. Power is, inherently, always a factor in this process.

This echoes the renewed interest in the themes of care and maintenance; these theoretical lenses have inherited a lot from the field of disability justice, as disability justice scholars and activists have long spoken to the political force of care as an organizing framework for how we structure our collective lives.


Disability and Abolition

In Decarcerating Disability, Liat Ben-Moshe extends these questions about disability justice and design to examine specific, yet widespread, geographies—what she calls “carceral locales.”6 Charting the history and genealogy of the deinstitutionalization movement—which saw, over two waves through the 1950s and ’60s, almost half a million patients transferred from state-run institutions to community mental-health centers—Ben-Moshe draws lessons for the prison abolitionist movement, showing that abolition is a realistic goal with precedent in disability activism.

Ben-Moshe is also a critical geographer and especially focused on “the ways carceral locales and their histories of closure and abolition are interconnected.” By carceral locales, she is referring to “a variety of enclosures, especially prisons, jails, psychiatric hospitals, and residential institutions for those with intellectual or developmental disabilities.” One key lesson is that you cannot understand the socioeconomic framework of cities without grappling with the logic and geographies of incarceration and containment that structure these spaces. As the poet Tongo Eisen-Martin wrote: “My dear, if it is not a city, it is a prison. / If it has a prison, it is a prison. Not a city.”

The use of incarceration to banish and contain populations has a long history, from Enlightenment-age leper colonies to insane asylums. In the early 20th century, the scale of confinement in large state mental hospitals, psychiatric facilities, wards, reformatory schools, group homes, and asylums was vast, stemming from the same carceral logic and geographies that underpin the current prison-industrial complex. In the 1960s, as Victoria Papa has explained, quoting from Susannah Calahan’s The Great Pretender (2019), “the concept of mental illness—of madness, of craziness, of deviance—had become a topic of conversation like never before in the history of our country. It became more of a philosophical debate than a medical one.” The activism behind the closure of state-run institutions—deinstitutionalization—was, Ben-Moshe points out, an act of abolition, in its refusal of carceral logics.

Disability, as a human condition, is salient almost everywhere once you learn how to notice it.

Building on the works of Angela Davis, Mariame Kaba, Dylan Rodriguez, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Ben-Moshe posits abolition not just as “an agenda for demolishing but also for building.” Abolition, in these terms, becomes a critique of society but also a practice of envisioning entirely different “ways of relating to one another.”7 The crux of disability justice culture, too, is imagining other ways of being in the world. It carries the spirit of fugitive and Maroon knowledges that counter carceral logics—foundational to justifying a world in which prisons are seen as a given—as “senseless and commonsenseless.” It is also a form of “dis-epistemologies,” according to which we must “refuse certainty, embrace the unfinished, prefigure” the world we seek to build. Here, Ben-Moshe is calling for the discovery of utopian futurities that derive their possibilities from difference and positive deviance.

While not explicitly drawing on abolition terminology, Sara Hendren finishes her own book on a similar note, in her section “Clock.” In what is the most elegiac and humane part of the book, she speaks at length about her hopes and dreams for her son, who has Down syndrome. She writes of his intellectual development in relationship to the world and the ways in which he does not neatly fit into the demands of modern-day time. Lewis Mumford famously explained how the technologies of modernization, namely the mechanical clock, had the effect of synchronizing our lives and making it easier to subject them to the economic logic of productivity, disrupting us from more organic patterns of living. Anyone who is yoked to our modern way of working, who has ever felt the demand to monetize every hour, understands this. The economization of life is everywhere—real estate developers, planners, and economists often refer to the metric of “highest and best use,” which to me is a particularly dim and unimaginative view of the built environment.

The theory of crip time is a powerful critique of this. To be disabled is a form of asynchronicity, out of step with what the rest of the world has deemed not just normal but economically productive.8 If we can build the material world to be flexible to these asynchronous lives, we can live in what Ben-Moshe calls that “perhaps.”9 Crip time refuses to acknowledge a world that marks value only by what is productive. This is a deeply abolitionist imaginary.

Bringing together the worlds of disability justice and abolition could be one of the most powerful prompts for the future. What kind of world could we live in—where there is no need for prisons, flexible enough to meet the needs of everybody, understanding that we move through various states of dependency and vulnerability through our lives, in which we go beyond accessibility and inclusion toward systems of care and radical interdependence?

As the fields of architecture, design, and other practices connected to space and place are reckoning with their complicity in systems of mass incarceration, in contagion and disease transmission, in upholding racial capitalism, many are trying to redefine their practice. If we take on the idea of abolition as a form of social imagination, we can creatively engage with Hendren’s misfitting as an opening for radical possibilities in how we think of our cities. The social model of disability—a relational worldview—reframes disability as a result of whether “the experience of spaces, systems, practices, and ideologies accommodate the cognitive and embodied needs of their users.”10

These calls for a politics of transformative justice have cut across many disciplines, including the urban and spatial fields, and have emerged from the overlaps between transformative justice, disability justice, and abolitionist imaginaries. This raises an important point: it is impossible to talk about the history of our cities without taking into account the history of how society has viewed the body—from medical and public-health standpoints to questions of race, identity, and normativity—and the infrastructures we build that support or hinder our ability to collectively care for one another.


This article was commissioned by Sophie Gonickicon

  1. Aimi Hamraie is an associate professor of medicine, health, and society and American studies at Vanderbilt University, as well as the director of the university’s Critical Design Lab.
  2. Aimi Hamraie, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (University of Minnesota Press, 2017); see, in particular, chap. 4, “Sloped Technoscience: Curb Cuts, Critical Frictions, and Disability (Maker) Cultures.”
  3. Charles and Ray Eames’s 1977 film Powers of Ten describes the material entanglements of life at different scales—starting with a shot of a family having a picnic, scaling out to an image of the known observable universe, and back down to the scale of protons and molecules. It advocated for “powers of ten” thinking and looking at how bodies, objects, and environments are connected.
  4. Lennard Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (Verso, 1995), pp. 170–71.
  5. Toby Olson, “How Disability Simulations Promote Damaging Stereotypes,” Braille Monitor, January 2014.
  6. Throughout the book, Ben-Moshe uses three related, but distinct, terms: carceral locales, carceral geographies, and carceral logics. She defines carceral locales on page 1 as “a variety of enclosures, especially prisons, jails, psychiatric hospitals, and residential institutions for those with intellectual or developmental disabilities.” Carceral geographies, meanwhile, are the study of the interrelationships across space, institutions, and political economy that shape and define modern incarceration. Carceral logics are the ways in which minds and bodies have been shaped by incarceration. It’s useful to distinguish between how carceration shapes communities, how these practices are linked spatially through landscape and political economy, and how our minds and worldviews have been shaped by practices of carceration.
  7. Ruth Wilson Gilmore has used this wording in many instances. For more on this, see Revolutionary Feminisms: Conversations on Collective Action and Radical Thought, edited by Brenna Bhandar and Rafeef Ziadah (Verso, 2020).
  8. Scholar Michelle Murphy has written extensively, particularly in The Economization of Life (2017), on the eugenicist practices and infrastructures of calculation, and how they have shaped the neoliberal imaginaries of “population” and “the economy.” Murphy challenges practices in which human life is assigned value according to economic terms. We see modern instances of protesters demanding reopenings in the face of an ongoing pandemic, in order to “save the economy,” implicitly stating that some lives are worth more than others. Disability justice resists this form of thinking.
  9. In chapter 3, Ben-Moshe references feminist scholar Sara Ahmed’s essay “Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness.” Ben-Moshe rearticulates Ahmed’s etymological exploration of the word “perhaps,” to posit that “living in the ‘perhaps’ is the position of the abolitionist. Not knowing how things end up is not a disadvantage but in fact opens up possibilities of other life worlds that cannot be imagined right now,” allowing us “to refuse demands for certainty and futurity.”
  10. Davy Knittle, “The Disability Politics of Blight: Grappling with Urban Cure in Brenda Coultas’s ‘The Bowery Project,’” Amodern, no. 10 (2020).
Featured image: Installation photograph of Built to Scale by Emily Barker. Courtesy of Josh Schaedel and Murmurs Gallery