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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.

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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Disability and a Good Life: Working with Disability

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