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A collaboration between deaf and disabled artists and interior architecture students

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Giving up ‘my room’

In theory I was interested, in setting up this collaboration, in giving those ‘outside’ architectural education the opportunity to challenge it’s assumptions about what constitutes ‘normal’ interior and architectural space, ‘normal’ design processes or ‘normal’ educational frameworks.

A personal background

As a non-disabled interior design tutor, I had been feeling increasingly uncomfortable gaps between by own research practice around social disadvantage in architecture and the kinds of design programmes I was teaching in the studio.

This was a double frustration; both with what felt like my failure to integrate concerns with social justice into design teaching in a meaningful (and non-heavy-handed) way, and with continuing difficulties in how disability is being framed more generally in relation to the built environment. I had been working for the Centre for Accessible Environments (CAE) and was struggling with the seemingly simplistic dichotomy between disabled and non-disabled people that the ‘commonsense’ framing of accessibility in architectural practice tends to both assume and reinforce.

On letting go…

So there was an intention to unravel the controlling frame of design education itself– to shift (albeit momentarily) the locus of design expertise to the deaf and disabled artists. This was both about a personal risk (that of letting go of the tutorial relationship and of assumptions what the outcomes ‘ought’ to be) and the risk of no longer fitting into colleague and School ‘normal’ frames of reference, as embedded into our existing curriculum, project design, tutoring methods and assessment procedures.

This project was a small attempt to unsettle the existing structuring of the fields of interior design and architecture. I wanted to know whether these are capable of either apprehending or responding creatively to the disruptive impact of an ‘outsider’ set of knowledges?

On not letting go…

In reality I did not open up the students, tutors or the course to much of a risk after all; I had remained in control of setting the project and the processes by which the artists were invited to participate. The artists only engaged with students from other design studios during one, day-long review, something I had not even originally intended but was asked to do by the artist participants. And out of my own worries about how the artists might be 'seen' if they talked accessibility beyond our studio, I asked that students were mainly judged in relation to the brief and assessment programme they had been set, by their specific tutors and not solely on disability issues. One of the artists, in particular, found this an unacceptable restriction.

Sometimes I look back on this as a profound and unacceptable loss of nerve from my privileged, non-disabled position. Sometimes I think you have to set priorities on what battles you fight, where a short-term compromise can lead to a longer term success. What actually happened was that the review days were very powerful in displaying just how effective the artists were as creative critics across their diverse responses to theoretical, artistic, educational, design and use-related matters.

  Next: What We Found Out
Arts Council England University of Brighton, Interior Architecture and Design

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