Making Space for Disabled Bodyminds in Design Pedagogy

Emeline Brulé, PhD, University of Sussex
Joshua A. Halstead, MA, ArtCenter College of Design
*authors in alphabetical order

Comcast unveils a remote for changing channels with your eyes. Adobe celebrates the release of a plugin enabling voice control of their app design software. Gillette designs a razor for men who don’t shave themselves. Much of celebrated inclusive or accessible design focuses on enabling or simplifying functional everyday tasks—attenuating the barriers to leisure, jobs, and hygiene. While this is important work, disability experiences cannot be limited to functional barriers. 

Beyond usability

Disabled people experience ableism: Not just barriers but discourses framing their lives as lesser. When designers describe their usability tweaks as enabling well-being or positive self-image, they are making a connection between body and mind. This link is encapsulated by the concept of bodymind, which unseats the Western binary of mind/body and urges us to examine the entanglements of the body and mind and of the body and sense of identity. In turn, this reframing of disability is an invitation for designers and design educators to engage more deeply with disability in their professional and pedagogical practices. 

This may seem like a futile pursuit as long as basic accessibility needs are not met for most people (and indeed, they are not). But designers focusing only on functional needs tend to set aside disabled people as merely designed for by virtue of following standards and checklists. Challenging the focus on usability and tuning design to disabled bodyminds reconfigures how disabled people are part of the design process. For instance, consider the industrial design process: Designers identify tasks, study the movements involved, analyze anthropometric and environmental constraints, and ultimately create shapes that ease a given activity. Tasks and body movements can be dissected before being designed for; bodyminds, on the other hand, cannot. We can observe, then, shifting our concerns from bodies and minds to bodyminds changes disabled people from studied subjects to partners.

Further, as scholar-activist Sami Schalk writes in Bodyminds Reimagined: “As more research reveals the ways experiences and histories of oppression impact us mentally, physically, and even on a cellular level, the term bodymind can help highlight the relationship of nonphysical experiences of oppression—psychic stress—and overall well-being.” Designing for disabled bodyminds is an invitation to suspend the impulse of approaching disability as a series of accessibility problems and, first, consider ableism and other mechanisms of exclusion. It is also an inroad for design students to physically relate to how exclusion and ableism affect them physically, disabled or not. 


What would this look like in design education? Designing is fundamentally rooted in mastering and orientating our physical perceptions. We learn to move our bodies and materials to look; we learn to look and touch and weigh objects to determine how they feel; we listen to the noises they make. A design education is a somatic education—learning to sense the world and material artifacts in a certain way, often unconsciously. Identifying this unnamed process of acculturation critically is our invitation to call into question and expand on these reflexive embodied practices.

Try this: The next time you are in a public space, notice how you react to others and your surroundings. Do you feel welcome or unwelcome? Under surveillance? Do you feel at ease or an urge to tighten? What feels closed, and what feels open? What do you do without even noticing, and when are you the most aware? 

Consider how your external appearance (e.g., disability, gender presentation, race) affects your experience. Similarly, consider how your internal climate (e.g., attention, mood, perception) affects your experience. How does this manifest in your bodymind? And how does your experience differ for others? 

The exercise above moves our understanding of exclusion from the theoretical to the embodied. It should be only one in a series of regular attempts to focus on embodied experiences in and of the world. The self is configured through repeated cultural encodings, practices, and the discursive forces that we use to make sense of them. Yet, we too often reserve this attunement and mode of feeling to the experience of art. The impact will not be immediately noticeable. But the goal is to develop somatic awareness into a lifelong practice—where we make space for naming and redesigning personal and collective experiences in society and the environment.


Why do we believe this awareness to be important in design? Much has been said about recognizing one’s privileges. But this is a highly disembodied endeavour, which appears less conducive to small-scale, collaborative design explorations. We want to stress that this is not an invitation to design through empathy. This is not about making oneself feel like someone else or project how others may feel. This is a beginning place for heightening (an often uncomfortable) embodied understanding of frictions with the material world, instead of starting from macro design methodologies.

We are not advocating for replacing existing approaches to teaching disability and design, which range from the study of guidelines such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to justice-oriented approaches like participatory design. At the same time, we are not endorsing any particular toolkit or method—which have multiplied in recent years like Gremlins past midnight. Rather, we are sounding a clarion call to draw design knowledge from an undervalued but omniscient palette of relations; thus, opening the door to richer design partnerships.

We have begun integrating embodied design practices in our classes, and we’re not alone. Bodyminds are claiming space in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research and pedagogy, thanks to Richard Shusterman’s work on somaesthetics and Kristina Höök’s recent book Designing with the Body: Somaesthetic Interaction Design. As scholars, we have also published work on embodied approaches to research and learning. Taken together, we argue that situating our bodyminds before turning to the topic of accessibility—even if we’re disabled ourselves—is the sine qua non of sensing and enacting design futures.

By Emeline Brulé, PhD and Joshua A. Halstead, MA
Published March 12, 2021
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