Final Project – New Body, New Motion

Here is the link to my documentary I did as my creative portion to the final project. Below it is my written component.

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Jessica McKnight

Professor Magdalena Olszanowski

COMS 324 Communication Analysis of Environment

April 8, 15

New Body, New Motion

            In June of 2010, my mother, Anna-Maria Fiocco, was diagnosed with a common heart malfunction. In July of that same year, she went in for surgery to replace her heart’s mitral valve. 15 minutes after the doctors announced the surgery’s success, my mother went into a sudden cardiac arrest. Eight months later, at the age of 62, she was officially diagnosed as paraplegic after the realization that her legs were permanently paralyzed. She had to re-define what it meant to move, to travel and to live. The re-arrangement of the home and the re-construction of the space were inevitable due to traditional construction. The smallest things, like the height of the sink in inches kept her from the ability of doing her morning ritual. Most architecture isn’t designed and calculated for a body in a wheelchair, or for any other type of body than a “normal” one. Spaces are generally created for a person who is able to stand and walk. This isn’t to say that disability is ignored completely, but it is clear that “seeing disability as a stigmatized social identity and a reading of the body remains largely untaken” (Samuels). In this essay, I am going to address the idea of invisible disability in the construction of social and physical space with the topics of social exclusion and architectural normalities in a need of change.

The social exclusion of disability includes political and economical aspects. The disabled body, in this view, can be defined, as Rob Kitchin quotes, “unable to be as productive as their able-bodied counterparts” (Kitchin), therefore being a drawback to society’s progress. A fully-abled body, in comparison to a paraplegic body, is socially defined as more quick, more flexible and one that is familiar. Psychological theories, such as the studies of one’s nature vs. one’s nurture, are able to analyze the exclusion of disability as a way of protecting the self. We are born with and taught, from human nature and/or cultural experiences, to keep boundaries from the Other out of “fear or repulsion” and to embrace sameness (Kitchin). These traditional thoughts are embedded in our social creation of space. Through the eyes of society, Kitchin defines the disabled body through the eyes of society as “powerless,” “exploited,” “denied,” and “marginalized” in mainstream thinking and in turn, social hierarchies are created between dominant and marginalized groups. “People who do not hold the same values or live the same way as the dominant group are repressed through physical violence and imprisonment” (Kitchin). It can be seen in the streets when crowds of people are dumbfounded when encountered with a body in a wheelchair. “If people’s comportment seems out-of-the-ordinary, being too slow or taking too long, […] then the risk is that they become treated with suspicion or even hostility” (Hansen). As an example, my mother and I have always loved to journey around and shop downtown. Wheeling on the sidewalks and into the stores takes time and planning as most stores have doorsills. Even though they are only an inch tall, my mother cannot wheel over them independently. Upon entering a clothing store, heads turn, and reactions are upon us. It is clear to see that they are thinking of my mom’s body as an ill one: one that is not appropriate for fashion. Another reaction is the look of pity: a face that does not know what to do or say when encountered with a different body, therefore decides to ignore it. As an example, common responses involve a concept called “microaggression,” initially related to race and defined by Derald Wing Sue, a Columbia University professor, that blogger Laurence Parent relates to disability. The term is how it sounds; microaggressions are subtle and brief, intentional or unintentional, insults towards “different” bodies (Parent). Nearby people roll their eyes at a body in a wheelchair as it takes up more room than someone standing would. At home, unintentional spastic comments are made in situations of anxiety or tension towards my mother about her obstruction of space and the long amounts of time it takes for her to do everyday simple tasks for the “normal” body. My mother no longer uses her legs: she uses wheels. She understands the change in her size and the new way she must navigate herself, yet it is still seen threat. As Laurence Parent puts it, “We are viewed as potential dangers because we are assumed to be unfit to move in the way that we move. The way we move challenges the ways bodies should be moving” (Parent). The microaggressions are due to these “normative” spaces that are the ones that cause her “abnormality” within a space.

The physical organization of space is produced through social means and architectural means, such as blueprint manuscripts for building planners. “Barriers to inclusion are clearly evident in the urban environment” (Kitchin). Many buildings are concerned with beauty within the design and practicability for “normal” bodies rather than for all bodies. Urban geography “prioritizes” the able-bodied, and divides disabled people from the public street with, for example, rehabilitation centres. These isolations are in place in order to “normalize” the disabled for the ableist environments they are bound to encounter. “As such, policy is aimed at trying to make disabled people more ‘normal’ rather than changing the system to accommodate disabled people for who they are” (Kitchin). During the search of an adaptable living space for my mother, it was clear that there were very limited spaces available. In the end, the location choice was an apartment building with an elevator. Though it was the best option, much construction and re-adjusting was needed in order for her to be able to sleep, cook, and use the bathroom. Anna-Maria was sent to a rehab centre for 1.5 years of her life in order to be taught how to live in the “real world”. She has designated areas in public spaces such as work, schools, cinemas, etc, where her type of body is “accepted”. These separations from “general” space are a digression to the societal inclusion of disabled bodies: they only support the boundaries. “The space of the disabled body must also be thought of as a space of the contradictions of neoliberalism – it is at once privileged as a site of inclusion, but that inclusion is also the promise of its exclusion” (Sothern). These accommodations or add-ons are not natural space – they are made so natural space isn’t disrupted.

Needless to say, spaces are in constant transformation: “produced and constructed, dynamic and ambiguous, claimed and contested” (Kitchin) through active social interaction. A request for geographical change and new construction guidelines asks for disabled inclusion in all spaces, not just particular ones. Rather than disabled bodies adapting to normalcy, normalcy should be adapted to them and all bodies. In its traditional sense, the word “disability” contains negative connotations and consequently, the overall response from the sight of disabled bodies is with pity or disgust – and that is not right. Nancy Hansen quotes one of her respondents, “We’ve been given the wrong label, ‘disabled’, it makes you sound as if there’s something terribly wrong and I don’t thing there’s anything wrong with disability, I…se myself as getting around differently. I can’t use my legs, so I use wheels, it’s that simple” (Hansen). My mother’s attitude is a strong one and looks forward to encountering new obstacles, over-taking spaces and turning them into her own.

Works Cited

Hansen, Nancy, and Chris Philo. “The Normality of Doing Things Differently: Bodies, Spaces and Disability Geography.” Tijdschrift Voor Economische En Sociale Geografie 98.4 (2007): 493-506. Web.

Kitchin, Rob. “‘Out of Place’, ‘Knowing One’s Place’: Space, Power and the Exclusion of Disabled People.” Disability & Society 13.3 (1998): 343-56. Print.

Parent, Laurence. “We Are The Danger.” Web log post. M.I.A, 24 Nov. 2014. Web. 5 Apr. 2015. <;.

Samuels, Ellen. “Critical Divides: Judith Butler’s Body Theory and the Question of Disability.”NWSA Journal 14.3 (2002): 58-76. Print.

Sothern, Matthew. “You Could Truly Be Yourself If You Just Weren’t You: Sexuality, Disabled Body Space, and the (neo)liberal Politics of Self-help.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 25 (2007): 144-59. Web.

Thank you


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