Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 29, 2024
Janice Rieger Design, Disability and Embodiment : Spatial Justice and Perspectives of Power 1st edition . Routledge, 2023. 132 pp.; 12 b/w ills. Cloth $136.00 (9781032076843)

Janice Rieger’s Design, Disability and Embodiment: Spatial Justice and Perspectives of Power distills the methodologies and lessons she has refined through years of collaborative fieldwork and analytic research in and on museums, malls, universities, and galleries in both Canada and Australia. Central to Rieger’s methodology of critical design access is the Design for All (DfA) movement. Rieger argues that DfA uniquely encourages what she terms “inclusive ecologies”: a process of examining knowledge bases, creating designs, and encouraging usership which integrates all users and abilities at every step. Similar movements that seek to incorporate disability with design practice (such as Universal Design, Inclusive Design, and User-Centered Design) consider the abilities of the subject of design but fail to fully include people of varying abilities in every step of the design process. Instead, a process of reknowing, co-creating, and continued reflection is at the core of each of this book’s case studies.

Rieger’s intervention in critical design studies is perhaps most fully displayed in the final chapters of the book: “Care-full access for all can be created where a reimaging of the duty of care . . .  can invoke embodied and embedded relations with all things” (93). Since 2014, care has developed as a central tenet of the Disability Justice movement as a way of critically engaging with the variety of invisible and visible needs of those existing in the community. While theories of codesign and embodiment are becoming commonplace in critical design discourse, Rieger’s introduction of care seeks to recenter participants’ experience of codesign and use. The author succeeds in providing concise definitions and applications of justice-based frameworks to a readership not directly invested in activist work. As such, the text is not a typical scholarly analysis, but an exploration of novel concepts and methodologies for critical design scholars and practitioners to apply more fully. 

The book is separated into four sections: “Introduction,” “Deconstructing Ableism,” “Constructing Inclusive Experiences,” and “Conclusion.” The Introduction serves as a guide to the format and methodologies of the book. While Rieger presents complex disability studies methodologies, she eases the uninitiated into this field by integrating some of the best-known critical space theorists, including Michel Foucault, Henri Lefebvre, and Kim Dovey into her discussion of critical access design. By invoking these two bodies of work together, Rieger emphasizes the simultaneous social and institutional power hierarchies that space produces and is informed by.

Part two details four ways in which these hierarchies can be deconstructed through the co-creation of knowledge. Chapters two and four, “Embodied Mapping/s” and “Dialoguing While Wandering” examine how treating art production and viewership as co-constitutive experiences allows both participants and viewers alike to know the embodied nature of the other more intimately. The media Rieger highlights in the text requires the consideration of space and interactions not as intended, but as used. Informed through the embodied experience of those who Rieger has worked with, the author argues that neither neutral nor hierarchical readings of space properly interrogate the use of the built environment. The experience of space is directly shaped by the body and abilities of the users, producing individual relationships and novel interpretations with(in) the built environment.

Chapters three and five seek to move away from occularcenterism through the exploration of soundscapes and accoustemology (acoustic-ontology) (25, 27). Through the close reading of spatial experiences, Rieger’s analysis moves beyond space and accessibility as physical and visible phenomena. Rieger bifurcates soundscapes into two types of sound, ephemeral sound (produced only momentarily), and constructed sounds (built into the experience of particular spaces) (6). Rieger uses this dichotomy to explore how each type of sound reveals the cultural histories, practices, and ideologies that soundscapes uphold and entrench. Rather than the built environment, the author draws our attention to the non-static, momentary nature of any sound as a space for immediate change. Through understanding other’s experience of sounds and becoming aware of one’s own existence within soundscapes, design scholars and practitioners can begin to imagine new ways of organizing space.

These ways of co-creating knowledge for a better understanding of the embodied experiences of preexisting spaces are followed by chapters six, seven, and eight on centering care and inclusion in both the future use and design of spaces. In chapter six titled “Plans to Intervene,” Rieger provides a literature review and the state of the field for disability and design studies with a focus on justice-based methodologies. Rieger centers what she calls a “critical access approach” in understanding and designing spaces with a variety of access types in mind (68). Through the use of (dis)audits: walking through and auditing spaces with people of varying abilities, Rieger demonstrates how designers and managers can both more fully understand how a particular space has embedded access assumptions, and how future design projects can integrate the daily experience of individuals with disabilities to create more equitable access (72). The following chapter “Spatial Histories and Injustices” approaches the role of universities in reproducing knowledge and methodologic approaches for researchers and designers. Rieger argues for a reassessment of the design studies’ canon and the current usage of “justice” and “decolonization” as supplemental material often taught at the end of a course as modern ideologies (85). Instead, she advocates a critical skills-based approach that provides students with the analytic potential of justice and decolonization literature at the start of a course and in canonical works throughout the semester. Finally, “Inclusive Ecologies” approaches the posthuman possibilities of continuous and evolving use and design processes. Reiger examines the interpersonal, interobjective, and ecological relationships that the built environment creates. The author desires for practitioners to move beyond a framework of “sharing” the space with ontologies that are perceived as distinct, to a fully embodied “caring” across all sensorial relationships that the space produces (96).

While the introduction leaned on well-known theorists, Rieger’s conclusion is a jumping-off point for the practical implementation of her methodologies. She presents student responses to a survey on the role of spatial justice in architectural practice, highlighting that the next generation of practitioners seeks to center more equitable design while bringing attention to the fact that the desire to implement such principles fails to acknowledge the active process that it takes to embody such ideals.

Rieger not only advocates for accessible design, but has modeled textual accessibility through her language, definitions, and structure. Design, Disability and Embodiment is an ideal text to pick and choose applicable case studies for either academic or design classroom settings. Though the work is made to be read from cover to cover, each chapter serves as a capsule of the book’s key lessons. With only one chapter over twenty pages, each can serve as a concise reading easily digestible for learners in either the humanities or STEM. Theory and jargon never outweigh the practical methodologies Rieger describes. Chapters redefine and examine DfA and embodiment through the unique case studies and positionalities that the author has tested through years of field experience. The simple language and short chapter length ensure each can be read in a single sitting and allow interested audiences of every level to take something away from the text. 

This ambitious approach, however, is also the text’s greatest weakness. I was often left wanting more of both the anecdotal evidence and analytic expertise Reiger brought to each topic. In describing the effects of her methodologies, Rieger sometimes sidelines the media of the case study and how she reached her conclusions. Workshops she conducted are only briefly referred to while artworks illustrating Rieger’s processes of co-creating are given a handful of black-and-white images. This absence is felt most poignantly in the chapter “Dialoguing While Walking” where stills from various short films are the only way of accessing the central content and methodology. I see Rieger’s work as being potentially complemented by a website hosting databases of the visual media that the author has overseen the production of interactive worksheets and video tutorials for her codesign methodologies, and a glossary of key terms, acronyms, and language for reference. Nevertheless, without prescription or direct examples, the text provokes researchers and practitioners to explore and produce their own material and methodologies.

Ultimately, Design, Disability and Embodiment: Spatial Justice and Perspectives of Power is a poignant call to action for “both people with differing abilities and would-be allies, to co-create transformative impacts and creative spatial justice” (112). The processes Rieger describes have always occurred, yet it is rare for them to be documented so thoroughly and honestly for an academic and professional audience. Rieger’s work mediates the lived expertise that people with disabilities apply every day into legible and useful techniques for professional application. This book is a necessary exploration of how guerilla activist design can be integrated into professional processes as a disruptive but generative force.

Bryan Rusch
PhD Candidate, Art History, Duke University