A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Review of Aimi Hamraie's Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability

André Habet, Syracuse University

(Published May 3, 2019)

At some higher education institutions, its become increasingly common to frame conversations about accessibility within the concept of universal design. As a concept, universal design holds the promise of reducing barriers to people with learning, mental and physical disabilities through the rethinking of spaces (most often in the built environment, but also digital, and textual). Now typically referring to North Carolina State University’s "Principles of Universal Design,” the document outlines the various principles of universal design, such as PRINCIPLE SEVEN: Size and Space for Approach and Use, and PRINCIPLE THREE: Simple and Intuitive Use, designers should use if they want to make their products better able to suit a broad spectrum of bodies. The “Principles of Universal Design” also works as the chronological end point of Aimi Hamraie’s critical history Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability. Universal design however has extended beyond conversations between designers, architects, and disability activists to now include writing teachers, among others, interested in considering how they might attune their composition pedagogy for a broader range of (dis)abilities. 

Composition scholars like Jay Dolmage, Margaret Price, and Amy Vidal all share an explicit interest in determining ways by which these interventions for disabled students can be done in the classroom. Among those ideas, Dolmage uses ‘universal design’ as a metaphor for thinking through access to the writing classroom and how various aspects can be rethought to attune the course to broader bodies (Dolmage). Aimi Hamraie offers another means by which we can consider universal design through a historiography of the circumstances and events that cultivated universal design not as a progressive narrative of triumph, but one that’s constantly circumscribed into a particular understanding of disability. Building Access therefore provides a means for us to view the history of universal design by way of the term ‘access knowledge’, and those who contended since the post World-War II era about how access should be provided to disabled folks in the home, work, and social space.

Hamraie’s “interdisciplinary scholarship bridges critical disability, race, and feminist studies, architectural history, and science and technology studies,” and that interdisciplinary focus provides their book a kaleidoscopic perspective on the development of universal design starting from the period following World War II when the American government was working at means by which to remake its disabled veterans into productive citizens. From there, the book traces this history through disabled architect Ronald Mace, and his fellow disabled colleagues at UC-Berkeley as they worked to alter the built environment of the campus environment to make it wheelchair accessible through the installation of ramps, and curb cuts. The text therefore “conceptualizes the historical project of knowing and making access (access knowledge) through critical disability, race and feminist perspectives” (5). In doing so, Hamraie reveals how particular epistemological understandings of disability (scientific, architectural, industrial, national and embodied ways) developed and mediated each other. Ultimately, Hamraie’s book makes space for crip theories of embodiment to validate disability as “a valuable cultural identity, a source of knowledge, and a basis for relationality" (12).

The critical historical discussion about Universal Design in Building Access occurs over seven chapters. Chronologically, it covers the history of access-knowledge as it continues to unfold in front of us. Additionally, each chapter “offers a genealogy of a key idea, claim, or refrain of universal design” (17). Chapter one analyzes the rhetorical function of ‘normate’,  a term referring to the composite mythic identity position held by those unmarked by stigmatized identifiers of disability, understandings of design for people, then explores the development of design principles adapted for a range of users with a particular militaristic concern with regulating human variation (Chapter 2). Building Access then describes the genesis of barrier free design and the material rhetorics that were appealed to in the mid 20th century to define who counts as a ‘user’ (Chapter 3). Chapter 4 historicizes the frictions that existed among liberal demands for compliance, productivity, and assimilation, and radical, anti-assimilationist, and crip methods of knowing-making in the world. Of particular relevance to those concerned with materialist rhetorics would be Chapter 5’s focus on epistemic activism, particularly Hamraie’s argument that “accounts of the built environment as a materailizing force of disability exclusion must be/ attend to design knowledge as a site in which norms are produced through friction and leverage, and resistance is enacted” (132). The book wraps with two chapters examining the Universal Design since 1985, its relationship to the Americans with Disabilities (chapter 6) and “the Principles of Universal Design” (chapter 7), concluding with possible future trajectories for Universal design based on trends in urban development, population change and disability politics.

The final chapter on epistemic activism offers much to parse through for rhetoricians with an interest in visual rhetoric. Throughout the chapter Hamraie analyzes a range of design documents to illustrate the means by which these documents created and mediated various understandings of disability. The titiular ‘epistemic activism’ refers to the building codes and their enformencements created through research and social relations between architects and activists, providing the foundation through which Universal Design was later contended. As opposed to more overt activist tactics, such as the Capitol Crawl in 1990, epistemic activism occurs within the spheres of knowledge-production and dissemination regarding the built environment. Harmaie illuminates the extent to which disability access-knowledge was entangled in the dominant epistemologies of human engineering and rehabilitation. For instance, she examines designs made by Mace, a recurring figure in the book, including a design template showing anthropometric wheelchair users and space requirements for people using walking sticks for North Carolinian architects following the state’s adaptation of new accessibility guidelines in 1966.

Hamraie’s analysis of these designs circulates them outside of their usual space of expertise among architects, building managers, and legislators, and provides an opportunity for readers to understand the types of documents used in order to create material changes in the built environment. As Hamraie describes, “the design of textual and visual information became a site for theorizing access itself” (154). One aspect illuminated by Hamraie is the distinction between earlier anthropometric studies, and those practiced in the 1970’s by barrier-free designer Edward Steinfield, Steven Schroeder, and Marilyn Bishop, seeking to expand on ANSI A117.1, an accessibility housing code. As opposed to the earlier counterparts, these designers wanted to expand what counts as a ‘broad range’ of design variation, which also thereby illustrated that previous standards were fictions despite the claim that to design for others would be ‘statistically impossible.’

This chapter therefore provides further incentive for rhetoricians to also expand the scope of texts we consider when thinking about embodiment and accessibility in our classroom. Particularly for those involved in technical communication, Hamraie’s book provides a fruitful example of what can be gleaned through analyzing texts, such as architectural paraphernalia  and housing codes, that can often appear apolitical in their rendering of information. The study of designs and building codes grants an opportunity for us and our writing students to reckon with the relationship between design epistemologies and their built environment, potentially concretizing Universal Design in a way that a simple referral to the North Carolina principles might not. Through attention to these spheres of knowledge, rhetoricians would also be more readily able to engage in conversations regarding how particular aspects of our course designs uphold genealogies regarding who the class is imagined to engage.

Hamraie states that our understanding of Universal Design’s history will continue to expand with access to digital archives, voicing that such work would usefully complicate its lineage and stumbles. As such archival becomes work more widely available, rhetoricians’ efforts should center as one of their goals recovering the role of disabled people of color in access history who may not have been afforded institutionalized education like Ronald Mace and his contemporaries, but nonetheless participated in the shaping of accessible design practices over the 20th and 21st century. A recovery project of this scale can afford contemporary disabled people of color an epistemic lineage that attends to how disable people of color resisted racist housing practices, and shaped a space of their own.

Works Cited

Dolmage, Jay. “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door.” Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia, Brenda J. Brueggemann, and Jay Dolmage. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008. Print.

Hamraie, Aimi. Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2017.