Jun 5, 2019
In the late 60s, a group of disabled students attending [UC Berkeley] for the first time lived together in the Cowell Infirmary where they began to form a disability culture around shared hacking and tinkering activities. The group, known as the Rolling Quads, organized a protest against their rehabilitation counselor and demanded to do things for themselves and for each other. For example, they helped each other design ways to life in and out of bed, empty catheters, and open doorways without the help of non-disabled people. Eventually, they established a Center for Independent Living, borrowing the term from the rehab profession in order to get funding, and used it to advance their own political projects, which were based on a 1960s era self-help, to it yourself ethos similar to that of the Black Panther Party’s community clinics and the feminist women’s health clinics based here in Berkeley. Activists created a model in which disabled people themselves worked as care providers for and with each other, and also politicized their attendance who helped with building accessible designs. This is what feminist disability studies scholar Alison Kafer refers to as a “political relational model” of disability in which the focus is interdependence and mutual aid.
The movement also claimed what they called a crip identity as a reclamation of the word cripple. This was an anti-assimilationist response to rehabilitation imperatives that disabled people must become productive citizens. Instead, activists claimed authority as design experts.
What’s interesting about the historical documentation of the Center for Independent Living is how similar it appeared to be to what today we would call a maker space. In Berkeley there were computer coding classes…They also had a wheelchair repair shop modeled after DIY bicycle repair shops, activist mapping, and accessibility auditing projects that collaborated with the college of environmental design…These activities undergirded a phenomenon that I call “crip technoscience”—they are acts of designing, hacking, and tinkering as forms of disability politics against norms and social structures.
Aimi Hamraie’s recent talk on their coinage of “critical access studies” and its importance to disability rights, design, and politics is right here. Brilliant, sweeping, and necessary. (I very very lightly edited the above for clarity outside the context of the transcript.)