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Participation or marginalisation? Disabled citizens and the local governance of access

Emily Last, King's College London


This paper problematises the ways in which access and its associated activities is understood in English Local Authorities, and in light of different understandings of impairment, disability and disablism. Despite recent cultural and structural changes in the treatment and rights of disabled people, particularly relating to access, and policy developments calling for more citizen-centred, user-informed services, in practice, disabled people and their access requirements are still being marginalised and treated as an 'add-on' or 'special' issue (Imrie, 1998; 2001). Using interviews with Local Authority Access Officers, I examine this marginalisation in the context of local government, and its implications for the provision of accessible environments and services.

I split the paper into three. First, I show how Local Authorities' treatment of access is dominated by technical standards, procedures and guidance documents aimed at adapting the environment to a 'standardized' disabled person. This technicisation of access incorporates stereotypical and reductive representations of disabled people. Second, I examine how policy and practice relating access to planning discourse is opening up the possibility for the commodification of access, through the proliferation of private enterprises and Access Consultants promising legal 'compliance'. Third, I contend that a professionalisation of access describes the presence of a plethora of experts who are involved in regulating, rationalising and transforming access encounters and their outputs, mediating the relationships between disabled people and the state. To conclude, I suggest that access discourse constitutes a domain in which the uneven social relations of disability/able-bodiedness are played out between disabled citizens and local government officers, often involving reductive understandings of disability and the suppression of disabled peoples' knowledge and experience about access and impairment.

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