In the spaces we navigate, who fits? And who doesn’t?

These are some opening questions Dr Jos Boys poses to us in her workshop at the LX.lab, Beyond Access? Rethinking learning environments as spaces of care. Jos has a background in feminist architectural practice and has researched and written on disability studies and inclusive design. She is the co-founder and co-director, with Zoe Partington, of The DisOrdinary Architecture Project, an organisation which works with disabled artists to co-design new models for the built environment.

In this workshop, we explored how social and spatial design practices value some bodies and minds and disable others, and the implications of this for equity and wellbeing in our learning and teaching environments. 

Transforming design norms 

Jos shows us a photo of an elderly woman waiting for the bus. She has a large shopping bag and a walking stick and is sitting on the horizontal pole of a public bicycle rack. It’s an uncomfortable image, not just because the sitting position looks awkward, but also because it raises questions about why there might not be somewhere more comfortable for the woman to wait. She does not ‘fit’ the values and design of this environment, made for efficiency and rapid transit.

Despite this, the woman has ignored the bike parking signage and negotiated the space to make it meet her needs. As we discuss this image, I think of how I usually assume that spaces around me will fit my body and mind. I never question whether I will be able to wait for and use public transport, for example.

Misfits, Jos says, need to pay attention to and be creative in how they navigate spaces. She shares an example of an artist, Liz Crow, who spends a lot of time in bed due to her disability. The artist brought her private experience into her public work by working from her bed, on stage. Jos invites us to consider how we can challenge and transform normative values, practices and spaces in a similar way, to demonstrate care for one another. Flexible work practices are an instance of how our notion of the workplace has shifted and enabled more people to negotiate workspaces in a way that fits their life. 

Fitting into higher education 

From a bed in the workplace, we move to a discussion on students sleeping in the university library. What behaviours are encouraged or enabled in a library, a lecture hall, or a classroom? And how do people conform to, perform or resist these behaviours? Higher education has its own values and norms which might disable some people who study and work in the sector. Jos asks how these education spaces signal who should be learning, what should be learned, and how. There will be some students who are unseen, silenced or excluded by academic design practices and spaces.  

However, some students may resist these norms by sleeping, sitting on the floor in corridors and eating in class. Jos shows us a photo of a student with her artwork creation. She is wearing over her head and shoulders a large, umbrella-like structure of cardboard and brown paper. The paper has holes cut into it so she can see out, but we can’t see her face.

And following this photo, a more provocative image for the workshop audience. We see a screenshot of a Zoom room with 12 participants. The teacher has his video on, and the students are represented by blank rectangles because they have their video switched off. These two images seem symbolic of a shift in higher education – online learning means students have more control over who observes them. Learners can resist academic performative traits such as having to look attentive or sit still. 

Reflecting on collective care 

As Jos finishes her presentation and opens the workshop to general discussion, our thoughts turn to ways our education spaces and practices enable or disable students. I consider what there could be in my environment at UTS that allows me to fit in, or move easily and without thought, but how that could be different for learners and colleagues around me. Perhaps this includes ways of communicating, modes of learning and teaching, technologies, online and on campus spaces, and more. We are left to contemplate how we as individuals and as a university community already demonstrate collective care, and in what ways we could continue to grow. 

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