Rob Imrie

Co-authored with Charlotte Bates and Kim Kullman
Goldsmiths’ College, University of London


Universal design, disability and the radicalisation of un/care

This paper challenges an underlying sentiment of the workshop, ‘that we might be facing a process of [progressive] radicalisation of care’, based on ‘fundamental or far-reaching changes in a certain area or field’. Relating our observations to the interrelationships between disability, design, and embodiment, our starting point is the understanding that the daily routines of disabled people come up against barriered and unusable environments or places and objects that fail to function or respond to the manifold complexities of the body. The designed environment, including buildings, transport, and diverse material objects, is the embodiment of uncaring socio-cultural practices that create enforced dependence and potential for harm and hurt. Actors involved in the design of objects are not necessarily impervious to the failures of the things that they design, or the consequences for human welfare and well being. This is particularly so with regards to proponents of universal design, or a social movement that recognises a need to ‘design for all’, and to create designer empathy to ensure that people can live in the world ‘as well as possible’ (Tronto, 1993: 113).

Drawing on data from a European Resarch Council project evaluating universal design, we broach the questions to what extent can universal design be seen as a radicalisation of design, and can this radicalisation, if it can be construed as such, be conducive to more caring ways of designing? In a more speculative sense, what does universal design need to do to become radical, and what is the evidence of a more radicalised approach to designing by its proponents? We evaluate these questions in relation to the workshop’s themes: (a). Practices of ‘making visible’ impairment and bodily interactions with (in) design; (b). The reshaping and redefining of (universal) design as an object of dispute; and (c). Devising new possibilities, bringing to life other material becomings that might lead to practice design otherwise.