Design Justice, Planet Health, Disability…

Cover of Planet of the and dog....

Uncle History came stomping in with fire wood in his arms. Aunt Certainty said: “Soon we won’t need the stove and there will be no forests.”


Leon Trotsky: “The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.”

“There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there.”

― Bill McKibben, The End of Nature

Aunt Certainty keeps these quotations on her refrigerator.


Disabled, I think of design justice, about making our built environment eco-friendly–or more than that, let’s imagine healthy access and conceive of diversity, inclusion, and planetary health as equivalencies. These things are really there as Bill McKibben would put it.


In her new book “Design Justice: “Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need” Sasha Costanza-Chock puts together the beauty of design, the insistence of inclusion and imagination, and human rights and proposes a powerful reformation of how we think about the built worlds we live in. She outlines the formative principles of the Design Justice Network:

“Design mediates so much of our realities and has tremendous impact on our lives, yet very few of us participate in design processes. In particular, the people who are most adversely affected by design decisions—about visual culture, new technologies, the planning of our communities, or the structure of our political and economic systems—tend to have the least influence on those decisions and how they are made.

Design justice rethinks design processes, centers people who are normally marginalized by design, and uses collaborative, creative practices to address the deepest challenges our communities face.”

Reading this I sat bolt upright in my chair.

As a blind man I’m one who is normally marginalized by design. Double entendre fully intended.

That wasn’t the first passage to catch my eye. Sasha Costanza-Chock describes in almost withering detail her experience attempting to pass through an ordinary TSA airport screening. She’s non gender conforming. The body scanner with its AI and algorithms flags her. She becomes a public display, a crisis, a freak, a debased citizen. The built environment creates pejorative values for non-normative bodies. Don’t I know it? I’ve walked through thousands of airports with my guide dogs, always on edge, frightened of what’s coming next since the TSA is not kind, not welcoming, often untrained, many times malevolent when I arrive with a dog in harness. I’ve been screamed at, pushed, yanked. I’ve had uninformed agents demand that I take the dog’s harness and training collar off—things entirely unacceptable. I’ve been pointed at and made to stand around for nearly uncountable minutes while agents confer about the ADA. One impatient woman shoved me because I was in her way and she wanted her suitcase.

Participation in design processes is crucial just now, right here and now, for the very designs by which we live are being transformed before our eyes.

Design justice means we are less alone.

Let’s not be overwhelmed by new possibilities.


In order to create a more welcoming town, a cleaner river, and yes, use collaborative practices to address our deepest challenges we must finally end the economic advantages of structural inequality. Peace, Design Justice, and Planetary Health, (which I’m capitalizing) depend on new visions of industry.

Here are the essential principles of design justice:

“1. We use design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems.
2. We center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process.
“3. We prioritize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer.
4. We view change as emergent from an accountable, accessible, and collaborative process, rather than as a point at the end of a process.
5. We see the role of the designer as a facilitator rather than an expert.
6. We believe that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience, and that we all have unique and brilliant contributions to bring to a design process.
7. We share design knowledge and tools with our communities.
8. We work towards sustainable, community-led and controlled outcomes.
9. We work towards non-exploitative solutions that reconnect us to the earth and to each other.
10. Before seeking new design solutions, we look for what is already working at the community level. We honor and uplift traditional, indigenous, and local knowledge and practices.”


If you’re disabled or gender non-conforming, or you hail from any marginalized group you know about the need to be heard. You know even more about the absolute need for accountable, accessible design processes.

I once met with administrators at my university. They’d purchased software which everyone on campus was directed to utilize. It was blind unfriendly. When I pointed it out, a senior admin said: “you’re mistaken. This program has robust accessibility.”

It didn’t matter that I was 100 per cent correct. Nor did it matter that as a long time vision impaired computer user I might have given them insights into what makes a good program. I was not conceived of as a full community participant–moreover when I called the company that made the software they had no accessibility engineer.

We believe that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience, and that we all have unique and brilliant contributions to bring to a design process.


Earth is on fire. Community based politics have never been more important. Sustainable, community-led and controlled outcomes should necessarily involve new kinds of engagements.

Problem. Solution. Inclusion.

In the US wheelchairs are incredibly expensive and most wheelchair users can’t afford them.

Solution: invite unemployed machinists and scrap metal dealers and engineering students to repurpose discarded materials and then build high quality mobility devices right in our own communities. Break the monopoly of the one or two wheelchair manufacturing companies that are currently in cahoots with existing rehabilitation agencies. And come up with new models of financial support that lift up everyone.

As Sasha Costanza-Chock writes, we need to discuss “the raced, classed, and gendered nature of employment in the technology sector…” Moreover we need to make “a shift from arguments for equity (such as “we need more diverse designers and software developers”) to arguments for accountability and community control (“those most affected by the outcomes should lead and own design processes and products”).”


Equity alone is not accountability. Nor is it related to community control.

Listening to the lived experiences of the disabled is one way to learn the language of the local.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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