disability and kairotic spaces


terministic screens

safer spaces


A person snapping a self-portrait
elizabeth brewer » community


Elizabeth BrewerElizabeth Brewer
The Ohio State University

While discussions of access predominantly focus on physical accommodations (my co-authors mention numerous examples of such accommodations throughout this webtext), implicit in these discussions are certain attitudes of expecting and planning for users with a range of needs and abilities. In our calls for greater access, my co-authors and I are asking for more than specific fixes to environments; we are calling for a shift in how we imagine our students, co-workers, and audiences. In this section I focus on the importance of having welcoming attitudes toward disabled students and colleagues, in particular towards psychiatrically disabled people who are often left out of conversations on accessibility, but who nevertheless experience barriers to full participation in the university. I reflect on my impressions from research into the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement, and I propose the concept of safer spaces as a useful way to consider elements like welcoming attitudes that are often left out of discussions of access, but which are integral and important to the design process.

The motivation behind access, after all, is not simply that individuals can enter buildings, navigate websites, or get the class notes, for example, but that they can be part of the community. The concept of creating safer spaces, then, rather than creating access or accommodations, encourages us to think beyond the letter of the Americans with Disabilities Act (which stipulates an access of getting in) and moves to the spirit of it (an access of fitting in). I borrow this particular phrasing about getting in and fitting in from an Easter Seals public service announcement (Bremer, 1990) that emphasizes how physical access, while important, is not equivalent to full inclusion in a space.


A wheelchair user is on a ramp leading up to the door of a school, while a group of his peers sits on the steps away from him, seeming to stare at and talk about him. Full text of the poster reads: Getting in has gotten easier. Fitting in hasn't. Most schools have ramps and special doors to help people get in and out easier. But when you have a disability, you can still feel left out just because you're in a wheelchair. Or leg braces. Or maybe because you wear special shoes. Maybe it's time you knew that kids with disabilities want to fit in just as badly as you do.

Although discussions about accessibility tend to focus on accommodations, attitudes toward disability are also an integral part of what disability studies scholars are writing about when it comes to accessibility. One of the more overt examples comes from The University of Hawai’i at Manoa’s guidebook, A Model for Accessibility (2003), which includes a section on "Using Respectful Language" in addition to its access guidelines. By including a discussion on language in a guidebook about accessibility, the authors demonstrate their awareness that the attitudes expressed through word choice are related to issues of access and to creating welcome environments. The introduction to the guidebook advises, for example, “It is important that we pay attention to how we speak about individuals with disabilities in our community because it gives us some insight into how we are thinking. Changing our language also gives us an opportunity to change our thinking” (p. 4). To be clear, I am not saying that attitudes toward disability are the same as creating access to a space or text; access is not a term that encompasses everything that happens in a classroom, office, or conference. But my point is that there are elements of accessibility [1] that often get left out of the equation but which are, nevertheless, important.

Disability studies theorist Tobin Siebers (2008) has written about the relationship between our attitudes toward disability and our design practices. He focuses on what the design of physical spaces reflects about our attitudes toward disabled people, noting that “there is a one-to-one correspondence between the dimensions of the built environment and its preferred social body—the body invited inside as opposed to those bodies not issued an invitation” (p. 85). The design of physical and web spaces reflects the designers’ attitudes about who the users are, and the absence of accessible spaces results in what Price calls the cumulative absence of disabled people in our institutions. Of course, creating accommodations and designing accessible spaces and texts will eventually change attitudes about who belongs in certain spaces and how spaces/texts look and function; for example, the more videos we create with captions, the more we will expect that captions are a fundamental part of what a video is. But change in design can also spring from changes in the way we understand disability. If we change our attitudes to expect and welcome disabled people in our institutions, our approach to design will stem from these expectations.


1. Yergeau’s discussion in this webtext of shame as a barrier to obtaining accommodations is another example of how existing attitudes about disability affect one’s ability to feel welcome in certain spaces.