The Death and Life of Social Factors in Environmental Design
Conceptions of disability tend to be dominated by a medical discourse, which considers disability as an individual, physiological, disorder in a person’s body to be treated or cured. Critiques of this discourse place the body in a socio-material context, recognizing the interaction between its physiological condition and features of the context of action, between disabled person and built environment, between use and design. Disability is conceived not as an attribute—of neither person nor built environment—but as an effect. This shift from static to dynamic understanding has consequences for research into the (disability) experience of the built environment.
In this context, this chapter reconsiders how ‘the social’ is not some sphere behind the material, as an immaterial structure to be interpreted by those experiencing it, but performed within and through a person’s experience of and interaction with the built environment. The chapter draws on material from ethnographical studies on how disabled people experience and relate to the built environment: people born blind or having lost their sight, people using a wheelchair or having difficulty walking, and people living with autism. It shows how in the embodied experience of these people matter and meaning coincide, how their perspective may question socio-material configurations taken for granted, and how this may lead to reshuffling boundaries within these configurations—boundaries within the material environment, between material and people, and between (groups of) people.
In doing so this chapter tries, in line with the work of Ingunn Moser, to “bring out and make visible and present the actually existing alternatives of socio-material configurations.” For the alternatives following disability experience are not outside of ‘the social’, they just differently reassemble ‘the social’. The chapter thus suggests that ‘the social’ is not apart from or external to either person or built environment, but enacted in the relation between both.
These findings are significant in that they can make architects and other designers more aware about boundaries in the socio-material environment that have become so widespread as to become assumptions. By reshuffling these boundaries, the alternative socio-material configurations brought out in our study reveal the relativity of normative practices and prevailing frames of reference in design. They invite designers to perceive the built environment in novel ways, and challenge them to broaden their horizon.