Towards an Anti-ableist Architecture

29 July 2022

Towards an Antiableist architecture


So says award-winning architect, activist and access consultant Amy Francis-Smith.

Katie Shannon's masters research project, ' Towards an anti-ableist architecture' addresses the inequities experienced by disabled people and calls on designers to drastically improve access to the built environment.

Ableism, much like racism or sexism, is the conscious or subconscious discrimination against a marginalised group, in this case, Disabled people.

Nearly a quarter of the UK population have disabilities. Yet, they are often left out of the inclusivity conversation. Disability is described as a physical, sensory, or intellectual condition which causes people to be excluded from society through current physical, social, and organisational infrastructure. The importance of framing Disability in this way is to reinforce that Disabled people are people, and the reason they do not have the access to the same things as non-Disabled people is the fault of society, not Disability.

The equality act defines Disability as a ‘negative’ affliction which stops people doing ‘normal’ things, but what is defined as ‘normal’ and what is perceived to be ‘negative’? These sorts of definitions are part of laws in this country, are othering, and build walls between non-Disabled and Disabled people.

Within Disability, there are several different categories, and in each of these categories are a wide spectrum of different Disabilities, all with unique ways of experiencing the world. However, we cannot just consider these Disabilities individually, we also must think intersectionally. Not only do these Disabilities need to coexist in the same spaces, but they also need to be considered in combination with one another. Every person who has registered a Disability with the UK Government has an average of 2.2 Disabilities. Building regulations and standards do not address this. (1)

Towards an Anti-ableist Architecture is a research project which addresses these inequities calling on designers to drastically improve access to the built environment. The research project identified architectural factors which have an effect on Disability. To address those factors, it was determined that a new set of design guidance needed to be established. This is in part because this architectural research subject is underexplored in comparison to other social justice issues. (2)

A design project for an anti-ableist theatre was used as a test bed and proof of concept, focussing on six distinct and different user types: an adult wheelchair user, an adult with Dwarfism, a Blind adult, a Deaf adult, a child with Autism and an elderly person with Dementia. These six people were chosen for their diverse range in needs and desires when it comes to a theatre, which was the main challenge for the project, to create a truly intersectional space.

The design guidance document starts with a description of anti-ableist architecture and its four key principles. These are choice, flexibility and adaptability, intersectionality, and multi-sensuality.

Currently in the built environment, choice is largely absent for Disabled users. Using the theatre as an example, there tend to be one or two places within an auditorium where a wheelchair user can park, accessible performances with audio description or BSL interpreters are typically held on weekday matinees (assuming Disabled people do not have full-time jobs), foyers are busy and loud, there are not enough toilets to prevent queueing, and the backstage areas tend to be labyrinthine and stepped (assuming performers are non-Disabled). Therefore, choice is imperative to anti-ableist design. Choice in where to sit, which toilet to use, how to interact with a performance and when to take a break.

Furthermore, adaptability of environments is key to Disabled comfort, for example adaptable seating, height adjustable surfaces, and lighting, temperature, and acoustic control.

Intersectionality brings people of the full spectrum of Disabilities and identities together with non-Disabled people of all identities into one space. Anti-ableist design cannot exist without the consideration of the bigger picture.

Finally, multi-sensory considerations are not only important for giving access to sensorially Disabled people, but also enhancing the quality of atmosphere within buildings. Tactile surfaces, interiors, and wayfinding with a strong focus on materiality, acoustics, colour, texture and scent culminate in a holistic sensory user experience.

However unlikely it is that an anti-ableist theatre would ever be built, the design guidance which sits behind it is deliberately practical, applicable, low tech and transferrable. It creates subtle but powerful shifts in the way we think about designing buildings, the human experience and what it means to come together.

There is enormous potential for design guidelines to be implemented in practice, with a real possibility for effecting change in the industry. This research is a first step in charting a course towards an anti-ableist design; a radical architectural movement which seeks to overturn the bias in the built environment and deliver intersectional, stress-free, joyful, and quality experiences of buildings to Disabled people.

Katie Shannon

Katie Shannon is an Architectural Apprentice at FCBStudios, studying for her Part II with the Oxford Brookes Apprenticeship Scheme. ‘Towards an Anti-ableist Architecture’ is the research-led design project she has explored over the past three years during the apprenticeship. She is currently a key member of the Hayle North Quay Phase 2 and Cornwall Museums teams, where her academic work has been able to boost the inclusivity of the projects.

This article is also available in this accessible PDF and as an audio file.


Top: Concrete models of textural wayfinding

1. Model showing circulation and colour wayfinding

2. Close up of model showing the main entrance

3. Research framework diagram

4. Visual of the auditorium

5. Visual of the foyer

6. Sighted view from the main entrance

7. Blind view from the main entrance

8. Braille handrail axonometric view

9. Closeup of concrete textural wayfinding model

All images copyright FCBStudios unless otherwise stated.


1. The answer to that question\, which was asked to five professionals working in the Disability access and inclusion field\, was a resounding no.

2. During the apprenticeship\, it was evident that for every diagram\, drawing\, model or visual I made\, it took twice the time to produce\, in part\, because there is very little representation of Disabled people in terms of CAD cells\, 3D models\, diagram icons or ‘cut out’ people for photoshop. For me\, it was a litmus test and an indicator that the architecture profession is under-representing the Disabled community. I generated a library of people ranging in Disability\, gender\, race\, sexual orientation\, age\, and size. I could not claim my project as intersectional if the representation in the drawn information was not fully inclusive. This library is being integrated into the FCBStudios CAD cell libraries for Microstation and Revit\, with a view to boosting the awareness and further thinking in the field of designing for Disabilities.