The Disordinary Architecture Project: A Handy Guide for Doing Disability Differently in Architecture and Urban Design



The DisOrdinary Architecture Project starts from the belief that improving the design of built space is not just about “adding” disabled people to existing environments to better meet their “needs.” It is about exposing and challenging underlying attitudes, assumptions and practices that frame disabled people in particular and limited ways, both in everyday life and through the education and practice of architectural and urban design. So, rather than providing yet more inclusive or universal design principles we begin by challenging ableist attitudes and practices. We hope this can open up alternative kinds of inventive interventions towards, not just better inclusive design “solutions,” but also better understandings of how the “normal” is constructed in everyday life, and how it can be critically and creatively contested, underpinned by a commitment to social and spatial justice for all.

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Tatiana Martinez Soto’s Master architecture project as part of “Becoming,” curated by Atxu Amann. / Spanish Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2018.

Most crucially, we have to ask why disability has somehow remained stuck in a non-historical, atheoretical and seriously underexplored category in relationship to building and urban design practices. It is invisible in both avant-garde and mainstream architectural theories and discourses, just as it has been a persistent absence in critical and cultural theory more generally. Perhaps this illustrates just how deeply disability remains widely avoided, compared to other disadvantaged identities. It seems that we assume “disability” to be unable to bring any kind of criticality or creativity to the practice of architecture.

The DisOrdinary Architecture Project aims to change this through the accumulation of multiple small actions that together can create a substantial culture shift, both across built-environment disciplinary practices and in societies more generally. We do this by always starting from disability and difference as a means of revealing architecture and urban design’s deepest assumptions about who is valued and noticed, and who (and what) is marginalized and forgotten, in the processes of producing built space. We look forward to a time when starting from disability would just be an ordinary part of designing, an obvious place to start; and where ability (just like whiteness or maleness or straightness) would no longer be the invisible and natural side of the disabled/abled binary but, instead, a central part of the problem. Here we suggest seven steps to enable non-disabled people to better pay attention to their often unnoticed everyday attitudes, as well as offer ways to explore disability and difference as a creative design generator and as a powerful critical tool for investigating what constitutes “normality.”


Caption: In the “The Disabled Avant-Garde Today!” artists Katherine Araniello and Aaron Williamson respond to, and re-make artwork based on, some seminal creative practitioners including Leigh Bowery, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Tom and Jerry. Through a series of videos the artists (re-)perform their various (non-disabled) heroes and are by turns hilarious, absurd and sarcastic commentators. Though humorous, their point is a savage one: nobody will, of course, ever believe that disabled people could actually form an artistic avant-garde. For The DisOrdinary Architecture Project it is precisely such creativity that can inform design practices in a much more lively and thought-provoking way than current access and inclusion approaches. / “Leigh Bowery,” video still from Katherine Araniello and Aaron Williamson, The Disabled Avant-Garde Today! (2006).


Assumed Problem /

Disabled people have a tragic life. We should feel sorry for them, and try to help as much as possible.

Actual Problem /

One of the privileges of ableism is to misunderstand disabled people’s diverse lives and experiences. Underpinned by a clear and seeming straightforward division between “us” and “them,” it enables abled-bodied people to simultaneously assume their own bodies as unproblematic, ordinary and unnoticed; whilst framing disabled bodies in simplistic ways as fixed, lacking, abnormal and a problem. In fact, many disabled people will say that their biggest problem is not the fact of having an impairment, but the disabling attitudes and barriers that come from other people only seeing that impairment. This is what disabled people mean when they talk about the “Social Model,” as opposed to the Medical Model of disability. Rather than seeing disability as an individual personal tragedy, we need to understand how society itself is disabling (or enabling) by creating barriers for some people and not others.

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“[…] disabled people have to be ingenious to live in societies that are by their design inaccessible and by their inclination prejudiced against disability. It requires a great deal of artfulness and creativity to figure out how to make it through the day when you are disabled, given the condition of our society.” (Tobin Siebers, “The Art of Disability,” in Disability Studies Quartlerly Vol30, No2, 2010).

Disabled people have in fact little choice but to be experts in negotiating the built environment, with valuable knowledge and experiences that can deeply inform building and urban design. We need to find better ways of taking notice of diverse perceptions and experiences of occupying built space that open up “normal” architecture and built environment design practices to question. Collaborating with disabled artists, as DisOrdinary Architecture does, is one way to do this because it enables an equality of creative dialogue and action. Another is to recognize that there are already many disabled designers, students, teachers and associated experts working in the field, and aiming to build on this as something vital to design practice. Able-bodied people also need to find ways to challenge their own privileges around, and assumptions about, different kinds of bodies-in-space.

• Start from disabled people’s creativity, activism, and scholarship.
• Co-design with disabled people as creative experts.
• Check your privilege.

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Caption: Disabled artist Liz Crow co-designed a workshop called “Tilted Horizons” with Julia Dwyer, tutor on the Interior Architecture undergraduate course at the University of Westminster. Students explored how lying down in public intersects with both material possibilities and everyday social encounters. / “Tilted Horizons,” Arts Council England (ACE) funded project by DisOrdinary Architecture, 2017. Photograph by Jos Boys.


Assumed problem /

In building and urban design, we need to do things for disabled people that help them lead a more “normal” life.

Actual problem /

Current built environment practices often reproduce normative built spaces that privilege the abled, whilst discriminating against the disabled. This is because we live in a world where individual mobility, autonomy and personal competence are both highly valued and seen as just ordinary and “natural.” People who are less than fully mobile, are interdependent with others, or seem less capable then become perceived as “difficult” because they don’t “fit” with this world.

Doing dis/ability differently (2) /

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In this project Greg Morrell was particularly interested in exploring surrealist art as a means of representing disabled and non-conforming bodies, and thus of designing differently. / Architectural Diploma Project, Newcastle University School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape.

Rather than enabling more people to navigate the material space in a “normal” way, we could value and learn from our many diverse ways in being in the world. We need to find ways of starting from the richness that neuro-/bio-diversity brings, from uniqueness and difference and not from bodily norms and averages. Rather than assume the superiority of particular types of competence (based on individualism and capitalist norms of productivity), we could learn from variation, from slowing down and supporting each other. This means challenging assumptions of normalcy in our everyday routines and space; and investigating what kinds of bodies are imagined and operationalized in building and urban design, so as to reimagine these differently; and as a means of generating new kinds of design investigations and practices. By starting from difference — from mis-fitting, unruly and non-conforming bodies — dis/ability becomes a creative generator, producing new, previously unnoticed ways into designing.

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Caption: “Architecture Beyond Sight” is a three day action workshop, developed from conversations between Bartlett School UCL and DisOrdinary Architecture colleagues about how engaging more directly and creatively with disability can positively disrupt the visual, graphic and “abled” culture of much architectural education, as well as offering the potential to open up a more diverse set of designing, making and representational approaches. / Blind architect Carlos Pereira from Lisbon Portugal, a key collaborator in the Architecture Beyond Sight workshop at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL in September 2018.


Assumed problem /

Disability is best understood through a series of functional categories that limit actions (reduced mobility, blindness, deafness etc.), and thus can be ameliorated through design.

Actual problem /

Disability (and ability) are not fixed functional categories. Understandings of what counts as disability and impairment vary through time and space and are always dynamic, ambiguous and contested. In addition, no body is just a functional entity; we all engage simultaneously through our bodies’ functional needs, our personal histories and preferences, and the everyday world of normal social and spatial practices. Yet architectural and urban design continues to treat disability simplistically as merely a “functional” issue. In this world, people with a multiplicity of mobility differences get called “wheelchairs,” and a limited framing of physical disability tends to be the only impairment that even begins to count in design processes.

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Examples of texts from Disability Studies and Architecture.

Disabled people are just as diverse as any other social group, and their requirements and preferences are just as likely to vary. Instead of trying to pin down functional differences as if these were ahistorical “truths” rather than complex socially constructed relationships, we need to ask who counts as more or less human in different situations, as well as how built space, facilities and services assume and support certain kinds of bodies before others. This requires seeing disability and ability as a series of overlapping concepts and experiences, with varying and differential effects that are ambiguous and relational. We need to explore how to understand disability as an unstable category, and interrogate why attempts are so often made to define it as a fixed (and preferably avoidable) category.

In fact a rich seam of theoretical and critical thought already exists, but seems to have had almost no impact on architectural and related discourses — a huge gap for the subject. Through the developing field of disability studies, disability arts practice and disability activism, there are now many scholars, artists and advocates examining how disability intersects with social, spatial and material practices. Many of these studies and projects have a direct relevance to architecture — and can be found in books, project websites and disability-led blogs. Many of these authors and activists draw upon the Social Model of disability, but also go beyond it to a more relational approach. This means examining the contestation and politicization of disability as a category, one that always already intersects with other notions of what constitutes both normal and non-conforming bodies.

• Reflect on the language and assumptions you make about disability and access.
• Don’t make access and inclusion disabled people’s problem.
• Recognize that disability and ability are socially constructed in different ways in various places and times.
• Challenge attitudes that divide the world into “normal” and “abnormal” bodies, when this is to the detriment of the latter.


Assumed problem /

The design process obviously starts from the needs of normal people. Special requirements for disabled people need to be added on afterwards as reasonable adjustments, if feasible.

Actual problem /

By dividing the population into an abled and normal majority who get designed for first, and separating out a disabled minority whose “needs” are retrofitted as an add-on to the design process, we reproduce a particular version of assumptions about the relative value of disabled people, and their place in society. They are to be included, but as an afterthought — and can also be excluded, on what non-disabled people decide are “reasonable” grounds.

Disability Studies scholar Jay Dolmage names this “retrofitting”: “To retrofit is to add a component or accessory to something that has already been manufactured or built. This retrofit does not necessarily make the product function, does not necessarily fix a faulty product, but it acts as a sort of correction.” (“Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door,” 2008)

Such a practice is discriminatory: it normalizes a situation where many disabled people are severely limited in what they can do, whilst environments continue to be designed so that “normal” people can get about ever more easily.

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Retrofitting seems a very limited way of designing for the wide and fascinating variety of human embodiment, and ways of being in the world. Furthermore, it is often supported by everyday stories non-disabled people tell — what Tanya Titchkosky calls “justificatory narratives” — that perpetuate this as a normal and obvious way of doing things. Titchkosky also shows how this treats disabled people as “included as excludable.” It is time to unravel how these stories and practices work to reproduce disability and ability in particularly limiting forms for design, and to dehumanize disabled people, as of less value to society than ‘normals’

• Don’t retreat into justificatory narratives, to justify leaving non-conforming bodies out of built spaces.
• Challenge “common sense” rhetoric that treat disabled people as marginal, invisible or difficult.
• Aim for architecture and urban design that can ameliorate social and spatial disadvantage, not exacerbate it.

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Caption: Architects Thea Chambers and Ian McMillan designed a house for their own family. The principle of the Ramp House was to design and build a family home for a little girl who is a wheelchair user, where the whole house enables her to lead a barrier-free included life. By using a ramp to access all levels, an equality of space was provided for everyone. Spaces have also been designed along the ramp so that the experience of the house changes as it unfolds. The difference that the ramp makes is not just in functional navigation between one place and the next; it is centrally about how spaces are experienced, allowing opportunities to look back or forward into other spaces. As Thea writes: “for a child who cannot move around independently the connectivity of the spaces becomes all the more important; if Greta is in the living room, there are six different spaces that we can be in and move between, and she is still able to see and hear us, and communicate with us.” / Chambers McMillan Architects, “Ramp House,” (2013).


Assumed problem /

Disabled people are not that important. They represent only a small proportion of the population who can be seen to make unreasonable and expensive demands on building and urban design, that are not really fair on non-disabled people.

Actual problem /

In the current political climate there are increasingly more places where it is common to frame disabled people as potential “scroungers” in everyday language and the media; to see them as a “drag” on society and economic productivity, and as being somehow shameful. This is the context in which rather than just letting disability be a marginal concern for architecture and the built environment, non-disabled people need to reflect on, and act towards enabling social and spatial justice for everyone.

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We need to challenge assumptions of normalcy in architectural and building environment education and practices that perpetuate the belief that disability doesn’t really matter much. Many studies argue that disability matters, both because statistics show that disabled people make up about 10% of the population worldwide, and because we are all likely to be disabled at some stage in our lives. The argument here is different. It is that disability and ability are never clear-cut categories, but dynamic, complex and relative — blurring in and across aging, chronic illness and parenting for example; interconnected with poverty, racism, war and other conflicts; as well as being variously named/valued in different places and times. It matters a lot, then, that we take notice of the diversity of bodies as fragile and inter-dependent beings, rather than as unproblematically autonomous and mobile. This taking notice is not just about changing how we design and occupy built space, but also about what counts in architectural history and theory, and in how built environment education and practices are inculcated in particular ways rather than others. This requires nothing less than a paradigm shift across the built environment disciplines.

• Critically and creatively work to unravel how everyday social, spatial and material practices act on different bodies differentially.
• Find ways to make disability (and difference, more generally) matter in your work.

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Caption: “Aging Facilities” is ‘an alternative urban research initiative that actively explores different ways of “making space” for older age. The “Resistant Sitting” project looked at different ways of sitting (in public) in older age, working with a pensioner’s lunch club in East London, UK. The project both perceives older people not as passive and frail, but as creative — even potentially subversive — transformers of existing material landscapes; and at the same time subtly critiques the dry technical language of “normal” design representations. / Sophie Handler + Ageing Facilities: Diagram from Alternative Seating Guide. Ageing Facilities is initiated and managed by Sophie Handler, with support and funding from the RIBA/ICE McAslanBursary and the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK.


Assumed problem /

Inclusive design principles may be a good way of thinking about built space, but are just one more thing to think about, along with many other demands on architectural and urban design.

Actual problem /

Whilst the design process is, by its very nature, about creatively engaging with multiple, complex and partial variables, debates about disability and design have tended to remain over-simplified. This may be through building codes that aim to definitively categorize the spatial implications of different impairments, or through inclusive design principles that offer specific guidance on what should matter in the design of build space. Unfortunately these approaches tend to replicate an initial division between disability and ability, even where the end intention is to bring them together in more equitable ways. The problem is how to go beyond building codes and regulations, to find more richly-informed and creative alternatives.

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Starting from difference has the potential to “short-circuit” this perceived problem. Rather than adding “inclusive design” onto the (large) set of things an architect or built environment professional has to learn, what we need to do is to find new ways of mapping, analyzing and creatively responding to diverse bodies from the beginning of any design or research project. In this understanding access and inclusion do not have one technical or commonsense “solution.” Social, spatial and material practices are collectively negotiated, change through time, always complex, contested, partial, nuanced. Just like other variables in the design and construction process, architects and other built-environment practitioners need to build up a body of relevant knowledge — always recognizing its partiality and personal bias. This also suggests alternative methods for building up such a base, which disability scholars and activists are already actively exploring — through generative and emergent mapping techniques, and crowd-sourcing for instance

• Start from difference as a creative generator.
• Redefine access and inclusion as a collective, complex endeavor.

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Caption: The Mapping Access project, based in Nashville, Tennessee, and led by Aimi Hamraie, is exploring crowdsourcing as a means of improving access through critical, collective and participatory approaches. It does this both to make real disability-led improvements to the current university campus, and to investigate how larger scale data collection can also be made critical and inclusive. This has included a speculative design workshop where students and staff collaborate to strategize approaches to collective access on university campuses. Universities are spaces in which power and social norms often coalesce in the structures of built environments. While “accessibility” may often appear as a value in planning decisions, questions remain of what types of bodies and minds appear qualified to be university citizens. This interactive workshop considered medical, social, and cultural approaches to disability and design. It examined the concept of “accessibility” as it manifests in built environments, social relations, and medical encounters. Then, participants engaged in speculative design projects to re-imagine particular design problems, drawing upon their lived experiences and knowledge of built environments to identify methods for world-building based in collective, participatory, and sustainable action. / “Mapping Access” project: Speculative Design Workshop in collaboration with Syracuse University and SUNY Upstate Medical School, on April 19, 2017.


Assumed problem /

Legal and regulatory requirements around disability are necessary, but mainly act to reduce design creativity. They will always tend towards the “politically correct,” boring and dull aspects of architectural and urban design.

Actual problem /

Treating disability as perceived drag on, or potential limit to architectural creativity and design fluency, means that architectural and urban designers are missing huge creative opportunities. The actual problem is that the whole language of accessibility and inclusive design tends to be framed around a belief in functional solutions to the problems of a range of specific impairments, which — it is assumed — can be simply, coherently and comprehensively designed for so as to meet the “needs” of disabled people. Even more problematically, by making access issues a final technical and legal “add-on,” we avoid starting design from a much more interesting and relevant place: the complex, contradictory and hard-to-meet perceptions and experiences of our many different ways of being in the world.

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Caption: In the “Crash Course in Cloud-Spotting” project, artist Raquel Meseguer offered everyone an invitation to pause; to listen, to rest. She sees this as an ode to invisible disability and to acts of bravery we don’t see. She wants to highlight the invisible disability of chronic pain by creating a physical space that represents those who experience it. This is now expanding as the Resting Spaces Network. Raquel Meseguer + Uncharted Collective, “A Crash Course in Cloud-Spotting (the subversive act of horizontality),” (2016).

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Re-thinking our attitudes and practices around ability and disability — moving beyond either the requirements of building regulations or even inclusive design principles — means committing to challenging the normative aspects of architectural and built environment practices. The DisOrdinary Architecture Project believes that this has the potential to be a deeply creative act. Exploring our multiple ways of being in the world, together with creative disabled people, turns out to be a deeply enjoyable, refreshing and thought-provoking activity. This is because engaging with disability, difference and inclusion is inherently expansive and intersectional; it is about opening things up, rather than closing approaches down around assumed common sense about what is normal. Unraveling how dis/ability comes to be patterned into built spaces with particular differential and inequitable effects actually offers powerful creative insights and can suggest, more inclusive alternatives. In this understanding, doing disability in architectural and urban design is actually harder than before — there is no assumption of a “correct” functional solution, of merely meeting the demands of building codes. Instead there is a committed engagement with a multitude of disabled perspectives and experiences, as a collective movement towards more equitable built space.

his also means that starting from disability and difference opens up innovative and unexpected understandings across the whole range of built-environment education and practices; its histories and theories; its attitudes towards, and deployment of, technologies, as well as in its design processes and professional frameworks. Disability studies scholars like Jay Dolmage, Alison Kafer, Elizabeth Guffey, David Gissen, Aimi Hamraie, Rod Michalko, David Serlin, Tobin Siebers, Tanya Titchkosky, Bess Williamson and Melanie Yergeau are already offering new kinds of histories and theories about, and critiques of, architecture and urban design. These, as well as many studies and projects yet to be done, offer a vital means for understanding how architecture and urban design is inculcated in particular ways rather than others, and can help us better understand who this benefits and who it restricts.

• Get involved with, or be an ally to, disability-led campaigns for social and spatial justice.
• Challenge the ableism in architectural and urban design theories, methods and practices.

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Caption: David Gissen is one of an increasing number of historians, theorists and critics who want to open up assumptions within architectural practice and discourse about dis/ability. As part of his history, theory and criticism (HTC) experiments series at California College of the Arts, he made a design proposition as an example of how to critically and creatively challenge architecture’s own knowledge base about itself and about its history. He did this by re-inserting disability differently, into a reconstruction project for the Acropolis in Athens. He shows both the 19th-century path to the top and the current access route, as being set in their own time, one aiming to capture a deeply romantic and nationalist notion of the journey as deliberately difficult, and the other to meet the needs of disabled people. He argues instead that a 6th-century BC path should be reinstated, one that provides a ceremonial ramp from the base to the top of the Acropolis. He thus re-maps both our assumptions about “inclusive design” and the history of architectural interpretations of this iconic site. / David Gissen (renderings by Victor Hadjikyriacou), “Proposed Reconstruction of the Acropolis Ramp,” 2013.