Ableism and the struggle for spatial justice

People are disabled by society, not individual impairments, so it’s society that needs fixing.

Lisa Stafford
15 October 2019, 8.47pm
Pexels/Annija Porsa. Pexels licence.

Imagine that you have no choice about where you live because there’s so little accessible housing; that you’re not able to get out and about in your community because the environment that’s been planned and designed by society excludes you; and that your out-of-placeness is reinforced by the absence of connecting footpaths and inaccessible public transport, services and shops. This is the lived reality of many people with impairments and chronic illness.

“Just to walk her,” as one mother said of her disabled daughter during my research in Australia,” it doesn’t even have to be to the shops; there is nowhere from here to push her with footpaths just to get her out and about - you know what I mean - it’s just the principle of just being able to go for a walk.”

I’m using the language of ‘disabled people’ here in line with a social model of disability which recognises that people with impairments are disabled by society through the effects of ableist attitudes and systems rather than the functioning of people’s minds, bodies and senses. We experience injustices in our housing, offices, streets, towns, cities and borders. But being denied the right to be in these everyday spaces is not just a social injustice, it’s also a spatial injustice that seeks to undermine our personhood and quality of life.

I know this personally through my experience of being a disabled, chronically-ill person, as well as professionally through my planning and research work on participation and inclusive environments with disabled children and young people.

Ten years ago I developed more complex multi-system impairments. Friends disappeared and I lost my job in government. I was examined and prodded through the medical system and became housebound and isolated. Now I’m a part time academic at a university, but while my power wheelchair enables me the freedom to participate more fully it has brought a whole set of new challenges, like being denied door access to lecture rooms to teach my students and becoming stranded by supposedly-accessible taxis.

Despite notifying the organisers of a recent conference months in advance that I would need wheelchair accessibility to participate fully, for example, two of the rooms in which I was due to present were inaccessible – which was somewhat ironic given that the topic of my presentation was ‘spatial justice and planning inclusive environments.’

The ‘solution’ was for me to be accompanied by staff through kitchens and service lifts at all times, which was humiliating because it made me dependent on others and removed my choice and spontaneity. What has been constantly reinforced to me over years of experiences like this is just how much people without disabilities take the act of being in space for granted.

Spatial injustice is not only expressed through denying a disabled person the right to be in space; it also operates through hegemonic social and economic systems that maintain inequality and exclusion by preventing access to, and the use of, socially-valued resources that are part of the fabric of life – our built environments like parks and town centres, for example, and social services and infrastructure such as transport, health and education.

These resources have become so familiar in contemporary society that they often go unnoticed, at least by privileged able bodies, unless they are themselves adversely affected in some way. This taken-for-grantedness is why fighting for spatial justice is critically important in upholding disabled people’s rights.

In Australia, for example, the Queensland Government overlooked accessibility requirements on new public city trains they commissioned. Instead of committing to fix the trains immediately when they went into service in 2018, they sought an exemption under the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992, which was denied. This speaks volumes in terms of the depth of ableism that exists in transport planning and design.

As this example shows, space isn’t neutral, because a person’s right to be in space and participate fully in everyday life is influenced by dominant ideologies and structural arrangements. In addition, thinking about justice spatially helps us to understand and address the interconnectedness of social oppressions: who you are and where you live should not determine whether you live and thrive.

Disabled people are a very diverse group with various axes of differences and intersecting oppressions, yet ableism is a common and shared oppression - a pervasive prejudice that favours ‘normal’ bodies while discriminating against those that depart from this norm. Ableism is overt and implicit, and is embedded in society’s attitudes, beliefs, social interactions, practices, systems and structures. It operates by positioning disabled people as marginalized and invisible ‘others.’

Ableism persists due to society’s long-held false beliefs and images of what constitutes a normal and able body, “the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings” as the scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson puts it. One’s personhood and subsequent value is determined against this social figure who is invariably male, upright and white, and who has a ‘mesomorphic’ (or ‘athletic’) physique. Power - in terms of ability and privilege - is attributed only to those who fit such bodily configurations.

This fabricated ideology of normal and able is reinforced by a dominant medical discourse that focuses on the ‘deficits’ of non-normative bodies, questioning and problematizing the ways in which non-standardised bodies move, think, speak and act. In capitalist societies, specific body attributes and abilities are also deemed to have greater economic value, while others are considered burdensome and unprofitable.

Such attitudes do not reflect the invaluable diversity of human life, and they allow acts of spatial injustice and human rights violations among disabled people to persevere unchecked.

We don’t have to look far for current examples of ableism - for example, Donald Trump’s mockery of reporter Serge Kovaleski who has congenital joint contracture or ‘arthrogryposis;’ and the callous bullying attacks on Greta Thunberg’s Asperger’s by climate change denialists for her global stand for climate justice.

Other examples include the Australian Government’s discriminatory migration rules that can deny entry or authorise deportation of refugee disabled people due to being deemed a ‘burdensome drain’ on society; and the punishing austerity measures regarding welfare-to-work that are in place in countries like the UK and Australia which harm - and in some cases kill - disabled people, as researchers like Mo Stewart and journalists like Frances Ryan have shown.

These injustices and inequalities are widening in both the global north and the global south, despite the enactment of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities over ten years ago and the explicit recognition of disability targets within the Global Sustainable Development Goals. Addressing this growing social and spatial divide requires us to confront ableism directly if we want to achieve more inclusive communities and cities.

The good news is that we can do something about this situation. Since space and systems are socially produced, they can also be changed, by disrupting the dialogue around disability, transforming the systems and structures underpinned by ableism, and calling out the pervasiveness of these attitudes in society. This means openly labelling devalued acts and language towards disabled people as ableist.

It also requires telling a different story about disability, one that is led by disabled people and which acknowledges and accepts impairments and bodily diversity as a usual part of the human condition. We must continue to shift public thinking towards an acceptance that all people’s bodies are valuable, and that one body form or way of being is not more powerful or worthy then another. This will take significant leadership and sustained campaigning, but it is possible.

We must also question austerity policies that position disabled people as burdensome, vulnerable or worse - as ‘fakes’ or ‘benefits cheats’ - policies which have restricted services with profound consequences for our livelihoods and lives. And we should re-establish the importance of community planning which has been suppressed and devalued under neo-liberalism, so that decision-making can be more inclusive of the diversity of people and their needs.

The local level is a powerful place to build inclusive communities, because it is at the local level that transformative social and economic change can have the most impact. This principle has been modelled by Norway since 1997, when ‘universal design’ was adopted as a planning strategy for local communities characterised by ‘adequate accessibility, equality, participation and free choice for all.’

In 2005, 17 Norwegian municipalities participated in a project to translate this concept into action, while Oslo is working towards being a universally-designed city by 2025. The benefit of universal design is that it benefits everyone while ensuring that the specific rights of people with disabilities are enacted and upheld. We need every municipality to embrace the same commitment.

There is a long history of activism by disabled people who have put their lives on the line to fight for the fundamental right to be in space, and to participate fully in everyday life. While there have been some hard fought wins, the battle is not over, since discrimination and exclusion continue to be imposed on disabled people through social, economic and spatial arrangements perpetuated through ableism.

People are disabled by society, not individual impairments, and thus society, not disabled people, needs changing and ‘fixing.’ A sustained effort is required from all of us to embed this conviction throughout society, policy, and politics.


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