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Jos Boys: exploring creative new ways to engage with disability, access and design

In this blog to mark Disability History Month, DisOrdinary Architecture Project Co-Director Jos Boys outlines a new publication aimed at helping architects go beyond building compliance when it comes to disabled people.

13 December 2023

The DisOrdinary Architecture Project promotes new models of practice for the built environment, led by the creativity and experiences of Disabled, D/deaf and Neurodivergent artists. We believe that thinking differently about disability (and ability) can open up the design of our built surroundings to new forms of creativity and critique. Instead of treating disabled people as merely a ‘technical’ or ‘legal’ problem for architecture and urban design, we want to show how starting from disability – from the rich differences that biodiversity and neuro-divergence bring – is a powerful creative force for design.  

DisOrdinary Architecture has been going since 2006, with about 12 disabled artists involved regularly, and many more working on specific projects. We do workshops across architectural education and practice; consultancy with design practices and across the cultural sector; co-create public design projects; and produce alternative resources on disability and accessibility.

DisOrdinary workshop called ‘Alterator’ at the Royal Danish Academy, Copenhagen, September 2023. Led by disabled artist David Dixon.

Our most recent publication, called Many More Parts Than M! Reimagining disability, access, and inclusion beyond compliance is funded by Arts Council England (ACE). It is aimed at building and urban design practitioners, educators and students.

We want to create and test an alternative catalogue of ideas, stories and projects that helps architects and others reimagine what truly accessible, enjoyable and beautiful spaces can be. Led by disabled creativity and rooted in lived experience, it aims to subvert the one-size-fits-all accessibility guidance from ‘Part M’ of the UK’s building regulations.

Rather than relying on either conventional disability categories (blind, wheelchair-user, deaf) or standard accessibility terms (wayfinding, tactile paving, platform lifts), the compendium is organised around an alphabet of key terms, mostly drawn from disability arts, activism and scholarship.

Examples are Access Ecologies, Crip Time, Spoon Theory and Misfitting - all of which are increasingly recognisable to disabled people, but yet to penetrate architecture or related disciplines. The idea is that the catalogue is something to have on your desk that can be browsed or read in any order, enabling some immediate creative provocations as well as providing links for more in-depth information.

Seats at the Table event, a collaboration between Refabricate and DisOrdinary Architecture for the London Festival of Architecture 2023. Workhop with David Gissen led by Dis co-founders Jordan Whitewood-Neal and James Zatka-Haas. (Credit: Jos Boys)

Many More Parts than M! will be in two formats. A B5 landscape hard copy version (with a print run of 300) will be given free to architectural and other cultural sector professionals to test out. We will also have an associated microsite with a free downloadable pdf of this version and an accessible online (also downloadable) Word document with alt text.

Historically, architectural education and practice has not been welcoming to disabled people – either as building users or as creative practitioners. When we started The DisOrdinary Architecture Project we knew that there were already disabled people working in architecture, but very few and far between, and often in precarious roles, which is why we brought in disabled artists for creative rethinking.

However, over the last 15 years the number of disabled architectural students and architects is increasing – and many of these young people are not only coming into the profession but challenging its attitudes. If non-disabled people are to do something of real value in Disability History Month, it is to work hard to enable creative disabled people to be part of architecture, not merely ‘allowed in’ but as fully equal members of the profession. And that means that architectural education and practice has to change the way it does things - insisting on accessible design offices and educational spaces; opening up to new design methods and ways of working; and finding creative ways of designing for more than ‘normal’ users.

Festival platform project for Theatreformen, Hannover 2023 based on DeafSpace. Designed by Richard Docherty, Zoe Partington and Jos Boys, with Chris Laing as consultant.

Join our book launch in Manchester and London

Join us for the launch events for Many More Parts Than M! Reimagining disability, access, and inclusion beyond compliance. We'll celebrate with a panel discussion, networking and a free copy of the compendium.

About the author

Jos Boys

Jos Boys is co-founder and co-director of The DisOrdinary Architecture Project. Originally trained in architecture, she has worked as a design activist in community-based feminist practice, as well as an architectural journalist, researcher, and educator.

Find out how RIBA is celebrating Disability History Month.

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