Invisibility Work? How Starting from Dis/ability Challenges Normative Social, Spatial and Material Practices – Jos Boys
by Lorena Bassi und Vivienne Yao
The text Invisibility Work? How Starting from Dis/ability Challenges Normative Social, Spatial and Material Practices was written by Jos Boys and published in 2018 in Architecture and Feminism. Ecologies, Economies, Technologies.
Jos Boys is a British architect, journalist, photographer, researcher and was a co – founder of Matrix Feminist Design cooperative in the 1980s. She currently teaches at Manchester School of Architecture and is a visiting Professor in Diversity and Creative Practice at London Metropolitan University. She is also a co-founder of The DisOrdinary Architecture Project, which aims at changing the way disability is thought of in a social and especially architectural context. They believe, that by thinking about disability as a design opportunity rather than a hurdle, new creative design opportunities and ideas can emerge.
Jos Boys observes that people with disabilities are often neglected when it comes to architectural design. Accessibility in a building is either forgotten altogether or comes as an afterthought due to legal requirements rather than creative thinking. In her opinion, awareness of one’s body and its dis/abilities should be a contributing factor to a design, instead of a burden that has to be added in retrofit as a necessity.
This discrimination against disabled people is a result of invisibility work, as Boys calls it. She defines it as the work of not noticing things and making assumptions. It is the unnoticed effort by able-bodied people of making disability invisible.
Unlike gender, sexuality or race, the exclusion of disabled people is considered a marginal issue. Not even feminist within architecture, concerned with social justice and inclusion, speak up about the rights of disabled people. They are considered ‘excludable’ or invisible. Boys also observes that not including disabled people is seen as an understandable mistake.
She illustrates the problem with an example of a non-accessible lecture room at a university. A disabled student was not able to attend a lecture due to the inappropriate venue. Although there was protest coming from both disabled and able-bodied students, the uproar was not of large significance. Also, the only response the university offered, was a livestream instead of an accessible lecture room. Following the protest, the disabled student was asked to help improving the venue. This shows that when it comes to matters concerning accessibility and disability, it is expected of disabled people to share their experiences and expertise, as if it was their responsibility to do so. This is unnoticed work done without pay.
Additionally, according to Boys, invisibility work leads to seeing the non-disabled body as the normative. It causes the able body to be seen as nothing much. It is assumed that every body moves through space the same rational and unhindered way, so much so, that having a body itself is not even thought about anymore.
This restricts the design process as one doesn’t think of space in relation to the body and mind and how it is perceived by a person with a dis/abled body. Boys states that architecture today creates buildings and spaces for the able-bodied first and the disabled body is seen as a problem.
To counter that, she suggests the so called bodymind approach:
The issue of unpaid and unnoticed work done by disabled people mentioned above, is comparable to the problem of unpaid care work described by Silvia Federici in her article Wages Against Housework (2012). In both cases the work performed is seen as the responsibility of the worker and is imposed on them by society and not questioned. In case of unpaid housework, Federici suggests women to demand wages for their work to in the end gain enough financial power to be able to refuse to do the work. This same approach would not be applicable in the case of disability. Because unlike housework, which affects society as a whole, accessibility on the other hand only directly affects people with disability. This puts disabled people in a weaker position because they have to do the work paid or unpaid nonetheless. All the suggestions made by Boys are dependent on willingness for the cause on the architect’s side and it mostly appeals to their sense of social justice. Does it need added economical value as in Federici’s suggestion or is this alone enough to bring on real change? Unfortunately, social injustice, such as racial or gender discrimination, is often only noticed by the people directly affected, which in most cases is not the person in power, in this case the architect. There have been collaborations between architects and disabled artists but those too are dependent on the willingness of the architect without financial gain. The question how to effectively make a difference remains open.
Lastly, Boys’ claim of the “bodymind” approach being an enrichment to the design process has yet to be proven. Its complexity makes the application in practice less probable and again needs a willing architect. For it to be implemented on a larger scale, more people would need to be educated on that matter. Which again leads to the question of unpaid work done by disabled people to educate the abled.
– Silvia Federici, “Wages Against Housework” in: Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle, Brooklyn: Common Notions, 2012