Building Access

Cover of Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability by Aimi Hamraie. White text on blue ink against a backdrop of diagrammatic images. The images are black and white line drawings showing wheelchair users extending their arms into space. The bodies appear masculine and white. Alongside the bodies are notations of length, width, height, etc.Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) explores the origins of Universal Design in twentieth-century projects of knowing users and designing in their name. Twenty-six years after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, the design of accessible built environments remains a marginal area of exploration for design practice and theory. Yet, the movement toward Universal Design gains increasing popularity in design media,  education, and web design as a common sense strategy for good design. Universal Design’s promise—a better world for all of us—hardly appears objectionable. But when advocates treat Universal Design as “good design,” they strategically distance this approach from the ADA, and by extension, the notion of disability itself.

Drawing upon a broad archive of personal papers, trade literature, legal documents, and design ephemera, Building Access reveals Universal Design’s complex origins in disabled peoples’ knowledge and expertise about built environments. Using feminist, crip, and intersectional lenses, the book recuperates  Universal Design’s “epistemic activism,” or interventions into dominant fields of knowledge, models of disability, and ways of thinking about race and gender, which mainstream narratives of Universal Design have forgotten. Building Access thus challenges the fields of critical disability studies, science and technology studies, and design methodology to refine their understanding of accessible and inclusive design, particularly in relation to questions of racial, economic, and gendered citizenship.

“Building Access is a seminal text that will be received with acclaim and become well-known for its reconstruction of how we think about access, disability, and design.

–Rob Imrie, Goldsmiths University of London


“Aimi Hamraie gifts us with a rare kind of book, one that skillfully weaves critical disability studies together with technology studies and architectural history to unpack the American project of designing and making built environments purportedly usable by all. They ask us to think harder about who counts as the everyone of Universal Design, and how knowledge of body variability is created. Crucially, the book probes the ways disability access politics is deeply entangled with race through whiteness, bodily norms, activism, and practices material segregation. Anyone who cares about the built environment, technoscience, or disability politics will want to read this important book.”

–Michelle Murphy, University of Toronto


Production of Building Access was generously funded by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

Related media:

Universal Design: Myth or Reality?, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, 2015.

Imagine Otherwise Podcast

New Books Network Podcast

Events related to Building Access:

Invited lecture, “Making Access Critical,” University of California, Berkeley, February 25, 2019.

Annual Rathlyn Lecture (endowed), McGill University, Montreal, Canada. November 18, 2018.

Invited lecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, November 16, 2018

Invited lecture, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. October 29, 2018

Keynote Speaker, Process and Presence International Conference, hosted by DisArt Festival. October 26, 2018.

Book talk, New York University Center for Disability Studies. September 21, 2018.

Open Lecture, “Building Access,” University of Lund, Sweden. August 7, 2018.

Book party for Building Access, hosted by the Vanderbilt Center for Medicine, Health, & Society, January 19, Nashville, TN.

Keynote speaker, “Doing Disability Differently in Architectural Education,” Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, March 16.

Author Meets Critic Session for Building Access (invited), Cultural Studies Association, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, May 31-June 2, 2018.


Press mentions and reviews:

Disability Studies Quarterly

Journal of Design History


New Books Network Podcast

Imagine Otherwise Podcast

Bitch Magazine


Inside Higher Ed

Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Institution

National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity

H-Net Book Channel

Social Science Research Council Research Matters