The Americans with Disability Act passed in 1990, but it was just one moment in ongoing efforts to craft the meaning and practice of...

The Americans with Disability Act passed in 1990, but it was just one moment in ongoing efforts to craft the meaning and practice of “good design” that put people with disabilities at the center. In their new book, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), Aimi Hamraie takes a “sledgehammer to history” in the spirit of one guerrilla activist group that they track in the archives—among many other people, objects, and historical contexts. Hamraie focuses on work around “access-knowledge”—that is, the forms of expertise that were considered legitimate ways of knowing and responding to disability through design. What has counted as legitimate access-knowledge, Hamraie argues, indicates designers’ goals: Was the aim of design to make productive workers, liberal consumers, or structures that materialized a commitment to spacial belonging? Who were the imagined users and how could new political priorities materialize in worlds already built? Answers to these questions made—and continue to remake—our material world and its frictions.  Hamraie brings their training in feminist epistemology to never-before-accessed archival materials, along with an array of historical images and documents. The result is a persuasive, beautiful, and intrepidly researched book. Building Access torques received wisdom in disability studies, history of science, and architectural design, and models how to attend to research, writing, and publishing as a material practice.

Hamraie is Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health & Society, and Director of Vanderbilt’s Critical Design Lab.


This interview was a collective effort among Vanderbilt faculty and graduate students in the course New Approaches to STS. For more information about using NBN interviews as part of pedagogical practice, please email Laura Stark or see the essay “Can New Media Save the Book?” in Contexts (2015).

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