Disability Studies (DS) overwhelmingly treats the category of disability ontologically, focusing on what disability is and how it comes to be. Tanya Titchkosky's groundbreaking text, The Question of Access: Disability, Space, Meaning builds upon this work by addressing how disability is produced through knowledge, perception, and interpretation within the spaces of higher education. Titchkosky, a sociologist and Associate Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, turns to phenomenology, storytelling, representation, and the politics of knowledge to define disability not as an object of knowledge but as a "space of interpretive encounter" (56) and a "way of perceiving and orienting toward the world" (4). Bringing phenomenological concepts to bear on questions of knowledge, she uses perception and relationality to critique empirical, scientific, and medical approaches, which assume that disability is a diagnosable and knowable condition (15).

The Question of Access is exemplary both in its development of useful concepts for DS and as a methodological demonstration of how storytelling, perception, and relationality produce new ways of understanding disability. While Titchkosky does not characterize her project in this way, the book makes one of the most nuanced and innovative contributions to disability epistemology and phenomenology in the field of critical disability studies through its treatment of the interactions between bodies, space, and knowledge. By asking how to "know disability differently" (16), but going beyond experience as a straightforward supplier of knowledge, Titchkosky treats disability as an embodied and perceptive relation, rather than an object of empirical perception (141).

In Chapter 1, "Introduction: Access as an Act of Perception," Titchkosky introduces the idea of access as "an interpretive relation between bodies" (3). She shows that characterizing disability as disqualification "naturalizes" the boundaries of access without making legible why boundaries are drawn this way in the first place (6). Disability, in contrast to the concept of access, is a "prominent 'sense-making' device," a way of orienting the boundaries of relations of inclusion and exclusion (5). Having established that bodies, space, and meaning operate through an interpretive relation, Titchkosky then outlines the book's methodology—what she calls the "Five W's"—of asking the questions who, what, when, where, and why. Titchkosky uses these questions to interrogate truth claims made about access within what she characterizes as "bureaucratic" university spaces. Titchkosky develops the idea of universities as spaces of bureaucracy by showing how administrative approaches to access within the university produce meaning about disability by reducing inclusion to technical and individualized solutions.

In Chapter 2, "Who?: Disability Identity and the Question of Belonging," Titchkosky tells two stories. The first is about designing a classroom according to the principles of Universal Design. In telling this story, she shows that universal access is never about an amorphous concept of "all," but always about particular people who are included or excluded. Although broad access calls for the flexibility to accommodate many different kinds of student bodies, Titchkosky shows that "bureaucratically managed educational space" demands definitions of the outer limits of inclusion (31). For example, a university administrator tells her, "You can't accommodate everybody. You've got to draw the line somewhere […] Your plan needs to include many more details about who, who exactly, is this space for" (31). Titchkosky characterizes this act of drawing boundaries as one that makes disability "essentially excludable" (39). That is, the notion that one must draw the line somewhere and the view that the exclusion of individuals is inevitable becomes a justification for failing to create broad, meaningful, and collective access. However, Titchkosky's point is that through the model of individualized accommodations, bureaucratic institutions incorrectly predetermine the failure of more collective approaches. Her account invites us to wonder how an administrative response to access that rejects the defeatism of "You can't accommodate everybody" would take shape.

Titchkosky also tells a story in this chapter about her experience of moving into her office at the University of Toronto. She uses this story to illustrate her argument about disability and access as relations of perception. Titchkosky recounts her internal process of navigating the space between a building's loading station, from which she must transport her belongings, and her office. Using landmarks to find her way, the space of the building nevertheless fails to provide cues to help make sense of its layout. An office worker declines to help Titchkosky find her way until she declares that she is dyslexic and asks for help. Through this story, Titchkosky shows that disability acts as a boundary object marking states of normalcy and exception. Such boundary drawing also defines the limits of what kinds of knowledge about disability are considered important for "sense-making" (47). Titchkosky demonstrates that making access an individual issue figures disability as a disruption to conventional spatial requirements, defining the nameable and measurable boundaries of who counts as part of a community of access (33, 47).

Chapter 3, "What?: Representing Disability" takes up the issue of how disability is figured and constructed through representation. Titchkosky makes this work phenomenological and epistemological by examining access signage, person-first language, and questions of the boundaries of disability as a universal category of experience. Examining representations and symbols as categories of knowledge that can be defined and interrogated, Titchkosky shows that disability is a relationship marked by uncertainty and ambiguity, the supposed excesses of which access signage and person-first language attempt to contain. Turning from sociological theory to phenomenological questions of orientation, she examines access signs as disorienting markers of non-normate space that can disrupt the order of the built environment. For example, the popular "wheelchair ramps to nowhere" internet meme shows ramps and signs that indicate accessibility, but only lead to stairs, unpaved grass, or other inaccessible spaces. While signs mark accessible parts of the built environment as different or exceptional, they also disorient people who are trying to gain entry to accessible spaces.

Chapter 4, "Where?: To Pee or Not to Pee?" uses the space of inaccessible washrooms within the university to elaborate upon the politics of knowledge surrounding disability. This chapter provides DS a way to think through the relationship between bodies and environments not only as one of inclusion or exclusion but also one of knowledge, intelligibility, and projections of ideal spatial users. Titchkosky turns to the question of "where disability can be observed" (70)—in individuals, bureaucratic guidelines, relationships, physical spaces, or moments of encounter between them. She asks how disability becomes "say-able" by naming and assessing the status of truth claims surrounding access. These include the ideas that environments were not built with disability in mind, that designers and builders did not have the requisite knowledge to build accessible environments, or that access is not a realistic expectation given the uncertainty around disabled bodies. Titchkosky shows that when university administrators or designers justify reductions in access, this is as much about how they claim authority over knowledge about disability than it is about actual physical environments. When such actors assume knowledge about experiences of access that are not their own, they exercise power and authority to naturalize the lack of access.

Chapter 5, "When? Not Yet: The Absent Presence of Disability in Contemporary University Life," addresses the uncertainty of timeframes for implementing access in bureaucratic space. Titchkosky provides examples from her own university's experience with multiple aspects of access to show that "bureaucratic time" produces delays and uncertainties in the implementation of access goals. Here, she complicates the notion of "all," or a universal community that includes as many people as possible. Titchkosky shows that although accessibility advocates champion the idea that "all" people should be included in access, universities often adopt a concept of "all" that does not necessarily include disability. As a result of the vague universality of the concept of "all," disability gets excluded based on its association with individual particularity and difference. Titchkosky argues that "To live bureaucratic time is to live through an organized order that provides ways to perceive 'all' but does so without making people attend to how we come to understand this 'all'" (107). The question of whether disability can count as part of the universal cohort designated as "all" is as much a question of perception, for Titchkosky, as it is a question of how flexibility, temporal delays, and priorities are negotiated within the university.

Chapter 6, "Towards a Politics of Wonder in Disability Studies" establishes wonder, interpretation, and perception as generative political acts. Returning again to phenomenology, Titchkosky argues that disability as poetic knowledge "recasts scientific knowledge as the question of how we make the meaning of people, and how we develop our interrelatedness in social space" (131). Rather than proceeding from the supposed stability of scientific evidence, wonder "arises from the activity of making uncertainty out of what is certain" (132). Titchkosky uses wonder and perception to differentiate knowledge production within DS from fields adopting medical models of disability. She argues that understanding disability as a relationship of perception between bodies and environments destabilizes it as a "concrete object of study" (141).

The Question of Access serves as a novel and exemplar methodological text for DS work proceeding through a phenomenological and experiential lens. At the same time, it establishes new ways of judging the validity of how disability is known. Sit-point theories and standpoint epistemologies have provided DS with useful ways of discussing the value of personal experience as an alternative to medical knowledge about diagnoses and impairments. Titchkosky takes situated knowledge several steps further, showing that disability and access are relations of knowledge that emerge between bodies and environments. By developing the notion of disability as a perceptual and interpretive relation, Titchkosky shows us that this relationship does not begin and end with material encounters. Rather, the relational encounter between bodies and spaces is charged with meaning about who counts as part of the community of humans deemed worthy of access and inclusion. The resulting conception of the body and space contributes to emerging and complex conversations about the built environment within Disability Studies, such as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's recent theorization of the concept of environmental "misfit," as well as sociologies of space, such as the work of Tom Gieryn on "boundary-work" and "What buildings do."

The Question of Access is dense and ambitious, with certain threads becoming clearer across chapters with each reading. Titchkosky's application of phenomenology to sociological theory no doubt contributes a useful critique of empirical knowledge to DS in the social sciences. Nevertheless, while she cites work in sociological phenomenology, the general tone of the book is more theoretical and philosophical. As such, it would have been improved by more specific citations of Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception or Husserl's notion of encounters within the lifeworld as the basis of perception and knowledge. Engaging with these texts would have clarified the book's contributions to phenomenology as a philosophical field of study. Nevertheless, the material and investigative content of the book will be of interest to scholars interested in applied phenomenology, the philosophy of disability, and geographies of access.

Titchkosky's discussions of knowledge and methodology as part of the interpretive relations of disability and access are impressive and complex, albeit disorienting at times in their non-linearity. She makes the text accessible, however, by conceptualizing and renaming terms for commonplace claims about access and bodies, such as the concepts of "all," "bureaucratic time," and disability as "say-able" or "essentially excludable." As such, the text itself embodies the kinds of interpretive landmarks that accessible environments can feature as gestures of sense-making.

Though focused on the space of the university, Titchkosky's theories of bodies, access, and meaning have broad application to other bureaucratic and designed spaces. This text should be considered essential reading for architectural and design professionals and scholars interested in DS, as well as humanistic and social scientific DS scholars interested in questions of how disability is known, studied, and calculated within bureaucratic time and space. Though they build upon one another, individual chapters are theoretically rigorous and accessible enough to be taught to both undergraduate and graduate courses on questions of disability methodology, epistemology, representation, temporality, and politics.

Works Cited

  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. "Misfit: A Feminist Disability Materialist Concept." Hypatia 26.3 (2011): 591-609.
  • Gieryn, Tom. "What Buildings Do." Theory and Society 31 (2002): 35-72.
  • Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of the European Sciences. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1970.
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. New York/Abingdon: Routledge, 1945/2002.
Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2013 Aimi Hamraie



Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact the web manager, Maureen Walsh.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)