Aimi Hamraie is an interdisciplinary scholar working in the traditions of critical disability studies and feminist science studies. Their research focuses on the relationships between bodies and built environments, broadly understood to include how assistive technologies, architecture, and urban design interface with users. Hamraie is particularly interested in users whose bodies and minds are unanticipated in typical design practices, particularly disabled users. Their book, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), traces the history of the Universal Design movement in the twentieth-century United States, looking at how shifts in science and society led to more accessible world-building. You call follow them on Twitter @AimiHamraie.
Can you tell us a little more about the Critical Design Lab and Mapping Access project, which examines the architecture of accessibility on Vanderbilt University’s campus?
I started the Critical Design Lab in 2014 to do public-facing work. Our first project was Mapping Access, which came out of my teaching and research. I often assign students “spatial audit” assignments to study the campus built environment and think about who is anticipated and who may be left out of university spaces. I am also a historian of accessible built environments, and while I was working on my book, I was interested in replicating activist experiments investigating inaccessible built environments. Mapping Access became a way to take typical spatial audit practices and ask more critical questions about who is an expert and understood as a member of the community when we study the campus built environment. The project began because I needed accessibility maps of the campus, both for myself and in order to host accessible events that were open to folks beyond the campus community. No such maps existed, so my students and I created them.
But Mapping Access is about more than making maps. The real purpose of the project is the process of working with people to better discern what counts as an accessible environment. This occurs through public discussions about what access means and for whom. It also involves unsettling pervasive assumptions about the built environment as accessible under the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act. There’s also an intersectional dimension to the project. What does it mean, for example, for an “accessible” building to be named after the Confederacy?
What has the response to Mapping Access been at Vanderbilt?
Positive. I presented the work at a conference on campus and students working for the Vanderbilt Facilities Management department borrowed the methodology to collect more data about campus facilities. This led to an accessibility campus planning process, with evaluations and targets for improvements. The new campus map will hopefully include accessibility information.
You recently published your first book, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability. How does academic writing differ from creating public-facing projects?
The research process is not very different, though the final product depends on how one understands the user or audience. I tried to write Building Access with a broad audience in mind while acknowledging that its audience would be primarily academic/professional. The book is written for people who are invested in the project of Universal Design and provides tools for thinking critically about that project. A lot of my public-facing work is for a different audience: broader publics who may not know anything about accessibility yet, or may object to the premise that the world should be as accessible as possible for all disabled people.
How do you engage with your personal beliefs, positionality and the pressures to do “unbiased” research?
In the traditions of feminist science studies and disability studies, we tend not to think about any knowledge production as disinterested. Whether acknowledged or not, researchers often have a stake in the research. The task is to make clear our allegiances and positionalities. My research begins from the position that the world ought to include as much bodymind diversity as possible. I investigate how to get us there.
What motivates you to include public engagement in your work?
While I strongly believe that there should be no barriers to education, the current education system is not set up to facilitate the free flow of information or resources. Doing public-facing work is a way to train people who may not have access to a university education in how to establish themselves as experts.
You were a fellow in the 2010 DPDF cohort Spaces of Inquiry. How did your involvement influence your academic career?
Spaces of Inquiry was a missing piece in the puzzle. It gave me access to an emerging field of historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and theorists interested in the relationships between designed space and scientific inquiry. I learned so much from our mentors and the other participants. We have kept in touch over the years. Eight years later, we are still planning conference panels and other events together.
What’s the most interesting or exciting part of your work?
I am excited by what I think of as the “weird work”—the corners of everyday labor where I get to experiment or do something different. The weird work is what helps me stay curious. Right now, that is the Critical Design Lab, where I get to collaborate with amazing scholars and students on a range of projects, including an upcoming podcast; a project called Office Ecologies, which studies the boundaries between the natural and built environments where knowledge labor takes place; and the ethnographic and historical research I am doing on regenerative philosophies in urban design, more of an environmental humanities project.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in social justice issues?
Begin by acknowledging that your work will change something. You may not be able to predict how or when, but there is no inquiry that does not also shift the conditions that are being studied. And never forget to place accountability at the center of your work.