Ceren Sezer reviewed Building Access, Universal Design and the Politics of Disability by Aimi Hamraie (2017, University of Minnesota press) for Built Environment. This book provides a critical analysis of the Universal Design from the historical, philosophical and the material perspectives in order to seek an answer to the question on how to make a more accessible world. Even though it focuses on the US perspective, the ideas in this book can be extended to other contexts, and linked to issues of racial segregation, homelessness, immigration and environmental justice.

Sezer, C. (2019). Aimi Hamraie, Building Access, Universal Design and the Politics of Disability, Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota, 2017; 333pp. :9781517901646. Built Environment. 45(1):133-135.



The Universal Design is a design philosophy movement developed in the 1980s in the United States in order to raise awareness about the spatial needs of different user groups in built environment to incorporate them into the design processes by architects, urban and product designers. This movement initially focused on the needs of the users with physical impairments, such as the physically disable people and the older adults. This was due to the changes in demographic, legislative, economic and the social situation of these groups in the post – World War II era in the United States. However, with time the movement gradually diminished the emphasis on the physically impaired groups, and was developed as a common-sense approach for an accessible design, in other words, a good design for all. Access is understood both in terms of inclusion in design and technical requirements to achieve it.

Building Access provides a critical analysis of the Universal Design from the historical, philosophical and the material perspectives in order to seek an answer to the question on how to make a more accessible world. It argues that even though the Universal Design movement has provided a visibility for and improved the legislative rights of the physically impaired people, it has been ineffective to support the development of the theory and practice of designing for disability. In such way, the book challenges the idealisation of the Universal Design as a ‘good design for all’ through several arguments: Firstly, the ideal of an accessible design for all is limited, as what counts for ‘all’ lacks a critical consideration of the norms of ‘users’ developed historically by the scientific and medical perspectives. The knowing and making of an accessible and an inclusive design has taken shape through the certain structures of knowledge production, which excludes the lived experiences of the ‘users’ with disability. Secondly, the Universal Design has adopted a consumer-oriented approach to increase the marketability of its products, which lacks a critical consideration of the concept of disability. An approach towards disability, as a medical state, is limited as it does not consider structural, systematic and attitudinal discriminations towards the disable people in the fields of employment, recreation and the housing.

The author of the book, Aime Hamraie, is an Assistant Professor of Medicine, Health and Society and American Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Hamraie’s interdisciplinary research interests link environmental humanities, critical disability studies, philosophy of science, architecture, technoscience and health; as well as social movements.

In this book, Hamraie develops of an idea of accessible design as a method to achieve social sustainability and social justice activism to address some of the problems created by the consumer-oriented approaches to the Universal Design. The book uses several literature groups, which all address the Universal Design, including: feminist philosophy of disability, feminist disability studies, feminist architectural theory and disability geographies of access.

Building Access is organised in nine parts. It begins with an introduction, which presents the main arguments of the book, the key concepts and the overall organisation. The seven subsequent chapters provide a critical and a historical account of accessibility and the Universal Design, spanning around the ninetieth, twentieth, and the twenty-first centuries. The final part is the conclusion.

First two chapters (chapter 1 and 2) present the historical development of the architectural and cultural concepts and the perspectives for the norms for ‘users’. Chapter 1 focuses on the architectural design perspectives for norms of ‘universal body’. It begins from Vitruvius’ description of an ideal body, which was depicted as a white, young, masculine, muscled and standing body. The ‘Vitruvian Man’ was redeveloped during the Renaissance and in the Modern times to represent the universal man for the architectural measurements, and industrial efficiency. However, it also creates negative consequences for the non-normative inhabitants (e.g. immigrants, disable inhabitants) such as discrimination and segregation. Chapter 2 traces back to the concept of flexible users, which suggests the inclusion of a variety of users, including the disable inhabitants, in design thinking. This concept has been developed in the military, science and the industrial fields. It received a crucial importance during the post – World War II era of social, economic and the spatial reconstruction, which aimed at regaining the impaired population, as active and productive citizens, in order to include them into the processes of a strong nation building.

The following three chapters (chapter 3, 4 and 5) focus on the key approaches and the design concepts, which influence the basic principles of the Universal Design. Chapter 3 presents the barrier-free design, which refers to the architectural strategies to protect the access of people with disabilities to the built environment. The barrier-free design was developed after the 1950s, following the efforts of the disability activists in order to claim their legislative rights to access the governmental sources, including work, recreation and the housing. The chapter argues that even though the barrier-free design slightly changed the perceptions of the norm of ‘user’ created by the architectural and cultural norms, it was still dominated by the white, middle class and gendered norms.

Chapter 4 highlights the differences in the ways of understanding disability, influenced by wide-ranging approaches. It presents the rise of – what book calls – “crip technoscience”, which values the situated practices of disability as a source for knowledge making on the accessible design. These practices include public demonstrations, which raise awareness and strengthen the collective identity of the disable people. The book introduces the ‘crip technoscience’ as an alternative way of producing knowledge on ‘accessible design’, which challenges the dominant, medical, scientific and the rehabilitative ways of knowing the user.

Next chapter focuses on the epistemic activism, which is considered a form of activism for disability that takes place in the illegible spheres of the knowledge production and dissemination. It studies the overlapping in the design and scientific approaches towards the barrier-free design in the period of 1960s and 1980s both in the architecture and the design discourses.

Chapter 6 presents the key concepts and the approaches of the Universal Design movement and how they evolved in the period between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. The Universal Design initially sought ways to design the built environment as accessible as possible in such a way that the built environment does not require any retrofitting or changes. However, the concepts and the approaches of the Universal Design have been significantly changed under the influence of market-driven and the consumer oriented approaches, creating confusions and disagreements on the initial incentives of the Universal Design.

Chapter 7 focuses on the methods to assess the success of the Universal Design. It develops a critical look into ‘The Principles of Universal Design’, which is a list of design approaches, including: equitable look, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort; and the size and the space for approach and use. This chapter investigates how these principles are materialised.

The book concludes by answering the main question on how to design a more accessible world. It suggests that there is a need for a different understanding of an accessible world, which approaches disability not as a medical category, but as a social and a material discursive. This requires reframing the concept of the Universal Design towards the ‘disability justice’ which entails a critical view on how the knowledge on disability is produced, thought and studied. It also suggests thinking about disability alongside race, gender, class and aging.

Building Access contributes to the design thinking by arguing that the design practice can help creating an inclusive or an exclusive built environment. Even though it has a focus on the US perspective, the ideas in this book can be extended to the other contexts, and linked to the issues of racial segregation, homelessness, immigration groups, and the environmental justice.

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