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The problems with retrofitting

In this videos, Educators Jos Boys and Leanne Dowse challenge views of what is "normal" and introduce the idea of retrofitting.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. A “normal” environment.
JOS BOYS: Leanne and I are going to talk about a normal environment, and what we mean by that, and why we think that thinking about normal environments is a problem. There’s an assumption that the way buildings are designed, and the way places are organised is just normality. It’s what ordinarily happens. It’s the usual thing. And nobody really thinks about it. And then when you start thinking about people with disabilities, suddenly you have to retrofit. Suddenly you have to make changes for those people. And so somehow those people become the problem, because they are the ones that something has to be done for.
And that notion of normality, not just in terms of the built environment, but generally this idea that things are retrofitted for disabled people, and then they’re blamed for it I think is a really common issue that we need to look at.
LEANNE DOWSE: And it raises another issue for me. And I think it’s a concept we’ve talked about before– is the issue of inclusion, the inclusion of all kinds of diversity within the idea of access. Buildings is one example. But for instance, I’m thinking about issues of access in a slightly different way, so not necessarily thinking only about the physical environment, about spaces and buildings, but in some of the work I’ve done that’s looked at the experiences that women with disabilities have in terms of violence, and their pathways to safety, and escaping violence.
One of the things that we’ve really been able to see is that whilst mainstream services, for want of a better word, or those things that we think of that are normally provided, can manage the issues around gender. So they’re women’s, particularly women’s spaces. But often they exclude the idea of disability. So it’s yet again this shearing off of well, even what “normal” violence looks like for “normal” women. So often you see women with disabilities who are looking for pathways to safety. Often they can’t physically get into an environment. But what’s also excluded is consideration of their disability support issues or their disability inclusion issues. And these might be– for particular women, it might be around their care and support issues.
They may actually need care, which is often one of the reasons they’re escaping violence in the first place. Often for women who need support to disclose– so that could be people who have intellectual disability or perhaps mental health issues– will really need a particular kind of environment– not just a supportive feminist environment, but particularly an environment that takes into account the access needs of someone who has a cognitive impairment or perhaps a mental health issue. So these, they really complicate the idea of what retrofitting and what access is about for me.
JOS: Yeah. Yeah. And I think it’s also– so there we have a situation where we’re looking at services that are provided for– where there’s an issue. But I think one of the things that’s really interesting about what’s going in disability studies scholarship at the moment is that people are beginning to look at just normal places and normal practises, so not just the physical environment, again, but those the sets of routines and the everyday behaviours that we have, and attitudes.
And there’s been some really interesting work around the university, and around how students and staff, professional staff– if you have a disability, there’s a way in which you’re excluded through all those different practises that somehow manage to keep you out, or individualise you, or, again, make you the problem. And I think that work’s been really interesting. One of the things that, for example, Margaret Price looks at is academic conferences and how, again, if you have some sort of mental health issue or you’re not neurotypical, then the whole framework in which conferences work, and the way that they organise information and relationships between people actually disadvantage you.
And they don’t make spaces, like breakout spaces or ways of organising, that make life just as straightforward as it is for the people without disabilities.
LEANNE: And that’s such a good example Jos because what it’s really telling us is that access is much more than just about space. Access is about practises. You used the term exclusionary practises. It’s a really good term to just really help us think through the fact that access is much more than buildings. It’s much more than spaces. It’s actually about processes and practises. And I think what the disability movement’s been arguing is this idea of inclusion. And I think there’s been some disquiet about how inclusion’s been operationalised, if you like. And I think that’s where the retrofitting argument comes in. It’s like OK, we’ll include you, but we’ll actually just include you after we’ve already made all the decisions.
It’s a really interesting argument. And again, it’s one of those issues that we’ve pointed out before where consideration of issues around disability really help us to think through much bigger social processes– that actually, this isn’t just about disability. It’s about the world we live in.
JOS: Yeah. And it is– I think one of the phrases I’ve heard, Tanya Titchkosky says– is it’s a form of being included as excludable. And I think it works very much when you’re talking around people with disabilities. But it also works around other disadvantaged groups as a way of understanding what’s going on.

In the video above, Educators Jos Boys and Leanne Dowse discuss why barriers to access for disabled people seem so difficult to shift.

Jos suggests the value of the term “retrofitting”, used by disability studies scholar Jay Dolmage. For Dolmage — looking particularly at access to the built environment — retrofitting describes the fact that a “normal” building is first designed, and only then are things “added on” for people with disabilities. These adaptions (called accommodations or reasonable adjustments in legal terminology) are thus always an after-thought. They do not challenge the underlying assumptions behind the building design — that it is based only on the lives, bodies and minds of people without disabilities.

We will look later this week at examples of improving access that instead start from the experiences of people with disabilities. In the video, both Leanne and Jos give examples of retrofitting. Importantly, this term does not only refer to the built environment. The design of services, such as support for women suffering domestic violence that Leanne describes, are also retrofitted. There is an unconsidered assumption in the category of “women” that does not include disabled women — so services are not designed to match the needs of women with disabilities. When disabled women speak out about their diverse requirements, they are seen to need extra add-ons, and may well be regarded as creating problems by demanding “more”.

Jos’s example, based on the work of Margaret Price, particularly in her book Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, is about what is assumed “normal” in a university setting. Price tries to show how everyday ableist attitudes, routines and spaces act together to create what appear as normal and unproblematic ways of working.

In her work, Margaret Price draws out many connected strands about academic life, from attitudes about what counts as being “crazy”, to assumptions about what is normal behaviour at a job interview or a conference, to what kinds of people are catered for in the design of physical and virtual environments, and who is left out.

Leanne and Jos conclude that in order to understand why barriers to access continue, we need to look more closely at what is considered normal. As you saw in Week 1 (Step 1.11: What is normal?), this is also called normalcy by some disability studies scholars. This term tries to capture how everyday talk and routine actions — what we called “practices” in the video — make a particular version of reality seem obvious through its everyday ordinary repetitions. This normalcy embeds ease of access for non-disabled people at the same time as it restricts access for people with disabilities (and often those with other disadvantages as well).


Dolmage, Jay. (2012) From Retrofit to Universal Design, From Collapse to Occupation: Neo-Liberal Spaces of Disability.

Price, Margaret. (2011) Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. University of Michigan Press.

Talking points

  • Do you find the term retrofitting useful to thinking about access in all its variations?
  • Can you give some examples of retrofitting related to your own experiences?

Extend your knowledge — In Step 3.12: Access and embodiment, we look more closely at assumptions about a normal mind and body.

Continue to the next step to hear Mel’s reflections on access.

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