Module 1: Introduction to Disability Studies

1.6 Transformative

“There’s a challenge to individualism that happens at the moment you ask for some assistance with a coffee cup. Hopefully people will take it up and say ‘yes, I too live in that world in which…we need each other in order to address our basic needs, and I want to organize a social and political world on the basis of that recognition.”
Butler (13:35)


Disability studies strives to be transformative. The ideas it has produced, promoted, or embraced have the power to change lives. Earlier in the video Sunaura Taylor discusses the transformative effects of the city of San Francisco’s accessibility:

I moved to San Francisco largely because it’s the most accessible place in the world. Part of what’s so amazing to me about it is that the physical access—the fact the public transportation is accessible, there’s curb cuts most places, buildings are accessible—and what this does is it also leads to a social acceptability: because there’s access, there’s simply more disabled people out and about in the world… So physical access actually leads to a social access and acceptance.
Taylor (1:30)

We can connect this to what Taylor later says, and what we have just learnt, about the social model of disability studies. The model begins with the idea that to understand and address disability we have to turn our gaze to society, and examine the society’s effects and demands upon its citizens. The social model then asks us to change society to make fuller participation possible. The idea transforms the world in concrete ways that allow disabled people to engage in society, which, as Sunaura Taylor observes, in turn changes the ideas that able-bodied people have about disability.

The ideas found within disability studies share this power to transform the world by changing both its conditions and the ideas of those who exist within it. As seen in the works mentioned above by Chris Bell, Nwadiogo Ejiogu and Syrus Marcus Ware, sometimes the transformative task of an idea is to change disability studies itself. Disability studies should remain open to these transformations: it should be a reflexive discipline, and one that acts upon its reflections.

Two articles on topics relating closely to the subject of this course illustrate this point clearly. In the article Is there a place within academic journals for articles presented in an accessible format, Ruth Garbutt asks exactly that: how can scholars and activists working in disability studies simultaneously meet expectations around academic writing and publishing and produce writing that is accessible to disabled people?

Garbutt considers this question in relation to people with learning disabilities who might have difficulty with academic writing, and summarizes her findings under four non-conventional models of presenting research findings. Descriptions and/or examples of the models are outlined below – click each model name to see more detail.


In Building access: Universal design and the politics of disability, Aimi Hamraie digs deep into that notion of ‘accessibility’ itself: When spaces, buildings, or academic articles are designed to be ‘accessible’, what kinds of disability do we have in mind? And what assumptions are we making about disability itself? Hamraie observes that accessible design is often thought to be the same thing as “productivity-enhancing” design. The assumption that disabled bodies are not productive enough, and that disabled people ought to be made more productive by way of ‘accessible’ design, illustrates how,

constructs such as limitation and enhancement, far from neutral or self-evident, produce a ‘depoliticized’ perception of disability, which… treat as common sense the notion that disability is a ‘problem to be eradicated.’
(Hamraie, 2017, p. 13)

Accessible design doesn’t need to be about ‘productivity’; accessibility can be developed with other goals in mind, such as comfort or to develop a sense of belonging.


As you proceed to learn about digital methods in disability studies, keep in mind the importance of knowledge and social location to this discipline. Questions about how knowledge is generated, accessed, and shared will always have a direct bearing on whose knowledge is being given a space to grow.


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Digital Methods for Disability Studies Copyright © 2022 by Esther Ignagni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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