Episode 9: Contra* Wrap-Up with Aimi Hamraie


  • Wrapping up the season

  • Central themes of season 1

  • Podcasting


Catalyst issue on Crip Technoscience: https://catalystjournal.org/index.php/catalyst/issue/view/2199

Aimi Hamraie, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (2017): https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/building-access

Bess Williamson, Accessible America (2019): https://nyupress.org/9781479894093/

Elizabeth Guffey, Designing Disability (2017): https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/designing-disability-9781350004276/


Introduction Description:

The podcast introductory segment is composed to evoke friction. It begins with sounds of a wheelchair rhythmically banging down metal steps, the putter of an elevator arriving at a person’s level, and an elevator voice saying “Floor two, Floor three.” Voices begin to define Contra*. Layered voices say “Contra is friction…Contra is…Contra is nuanced…Contra is transgressive…Contra is good trouble…Contra is collaborative…Contra is a podcast!…Contra is a space for thinking about design critically…Contra is subversive…Contra is texture…”

An electric guitar plays a single note to blend out the sound. 

The rhythmic beat of an electronic drum begins and fades into the podcast introduction. 


Episode Introduction: 

Welcome to Contra*: the podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld. This show is about the politics of accessible and critical design—broadly conceived—and how accessibility can be more than just functional or assistive. It can be conceptual, artful, and world-changing. 

I’m your host, Aimi Hamraie .  I am a professor at Vanderbilt University, a designer and design researcher, and the director of the Critical Design Lab, a multi-institution collaborative focused on disability, technology, and critical theory.  Members of the lab collaborate on a number of projects focused on hacking ableism, speaking back to inaccessible public infrastructures, and redesigning the methods of participatory design—all using a disability culture framework. This podcast provides a window into the kinds of discussions we have within the lab, as well as the conversations we are interested in putting into motion. So in coming episodes, you’ll also hear from myself and the other designers and researchers in the lab, and we encourage you to get in touch with us via our website, www.mapping-access.com or on Twitter at @criticaldesignl 

Thanks so much to everyone who listened to and read transcripts for our first season! The Lab members and myself could not be happier about the reception of the podcast. We are so grateful to everyone who has shared and commented on the episodes. If you've been enjoying the podcast so far, please take a moment to rate us on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Stitcher, or whatever platform you use. This helps us reach more people. 

In this episode, I am going to do a brief discussion and wrap-up of our first season. I am also going to get a bit into the motivations for making a podcast like Contra* in the first place. 

In the early years of the Lab, it was very common to engage in collaborations and conversations about disability and design that took either one of two forms. Most of the time, I found myself doing some of the work that we could call "disability culture 101"--explaining that disability is a culture and for some people a shared experience that can produce design, and it's  not a pathological condition. The other type of conversation I often had was with other people who are part of disability culture. We talked about how "disability 101" does not get us very far. The conversations we have outside of our communities start to be the ones we have within them. 

Two years ago, I opened up the Lab to graduate students and junior faculty outside of Vanderbilt. The goal was to build a broader community, as well as to give my own undergraduate and graduate students access to mentorship and collaboration with disabled artists and designers, as well as other disability studies scholars. We spent a great deal of very useful and creative time reading texts, sharing cool projects, and engaging in what we call "co-mentorship." This is a model in which, in between meetings, we are each assigned to pair up with one another person and have at least one meeting devoted to workshopping our individual projects. From these conversations, we started to develop a shared vocabulary and set of resources. We came to understand our work as part of the lineages of crip activism and politics, as well as design. And eventually we came to a point at which had a long list of people we wanted to talk to. 

This was when we came up with the idea for a podcast. It seemed that instead of having these conversations just amongst ourselves, we ought to record and share them. We wanted to do this as a cultural archive for the future of disabled people and designers. Secondarily, we thought that designers, academics, and others would also make use of this archive. But something that was very important was to begin with the assumption that our audience was already invested in disability culture. We thought this would be just as effective as doing "disability 101," but that it would also provide sustenance to our own work and the broader communities in which we are engaged. 

Producing this podcast included multiple types of expertise. Kevin Gotkin and Jarah Moesch helped those of us who had never recorded anything before (including myself) figure out how to configure microphones, record audio, and edit. There was a lot of trial and error in this process (and so in some episodes, you may hear differences in audio quality because of this). 

Season one of Contra* reflects a range of people who first came to mind when thinking through what it would mean to have a disability culture-infused design lab at a university that was also multi-institutional and collaborative. Some of the interviews took place in this first season because of things like travel schedules: where I was going to be for a workshop, or the date of someone's visit to Vanderbilt. Others came about because of conversations lab members were having or publications we were working on. Several of the episodes in this season and the next feature people whose work appears in a special issue of the journal Catalyst on crip technsocience, which I co-edited with Kelly Fritsch, David Serlin, and Mara Mills. And there are more to come. 

I want to thank our guests: Sara Hendren, Mimi Khuc, Kevin Gotkin, Alice Wong, Robert McRuer, Cathy Hannabach, Marcel LaFlamme, Moya Bailey, and Vilissa Thompson for their time and wisdom. It was so incredible to get to learn from them and we look forward to ongoing conversations. If you haven't listened to all of the episodes yet, I would recommend going back and doing so--there is a really interesting narrative arc across the season that was totally unexpected. 

So now I want to discuss some of the themes that appeared across the season. In my mind, these were:

One, the concept that knowing is a gateway to making: that disability studies and disability culture concepts, as well as disabled people's experiential knowledge, can inform new ways of doing design critically. 

Two, disability culture as an ongoing and collaborative phenomenon that is also politicized in opposition to forces such as neoliberalism. Also disability culture and disability justice as a means of future survival. 

Three, intersectionality--particularly the relationship of disability to systemic racism, as well as racial identities and experiences. 

And finally, that design is not just about architecture or products--it also takes place in unexpected sites, such as media-making, conference hosting, and publishing. And all of these can be places where we infuse disability culture with design outcomes. 

Since it comes up in a few different episodes, and if you're interested in reading more about these themes from a historical perspective, I'll just say a bit about my book, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability, which was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2017. This book is basically a history of accessibility and Universal Design that takes up disability culture as a framework for intervening in the ways that designers talk about disability--whether from the perspective that disability is too marginal to include or from the perspective that non-disabled people ought to design inclusion for disabled people. So in the book, you can read about how architecture came to exclude disabled people and how early efforts toward disability inclusion were often also ableist and assumed that all disabled people were white. And you can also read about the origins of what I call "crip technoscience" -- politicized acts of designing by disabled people that have often been forgotten in the aftermath of the Americans With Disabilities Act. As companions to reading Building Access, I would very much recommend Bess Williamson's Accessible America and Elizabeth Guffey's Designing Disability. These books came out within a year or so of one another, and of course, we have all been close friends and colleagues collaborating for a long time. We're excited about this because it means that there is an emerging field of critical work on accessibility with several books and tons of articles that folks can read, whereas when we started working on these projects, there was very little other than primary sources. 

Switching gears a bit: 

A priority for us as we created the podcast was to have transcriptions available from the beginning, and multiple sources of funding were directed at this specific form of accessibility. Podcasts are not for everyone, and not everyone uses them in the same way. Some people listen to them on the way to work or while riding public transit (and there are all sorts of considerations in designing a podcast around how long to make an episode for this reason). Some people read transcripts. Some do both at the same time--reading and listening.

Personally, for a long time, I had a really hard time paying attention long enough to finish episodes of most podcasts. Then, I discovered audiobooks and that if I sped up an audiobook, I could pay attention much more easily. This is just because of how my brain works. Listening to Contra* in the production process has been really interesting because I found out that I sometimes speak much more slowly while being recorded than I do in everyday conversations, but because I tend to listen to everything at double speed, this is fine for me, and I would encourage you to try it out if you think that may work for you, too. 

Okay. So where are we going from here? I can share that next on our agenda is an even more ambitious lineup of guests who will discuss disability culture in relation to multiple forms of cultural production, including design, fashion, and dance, and who will share their recent publications and scholarly archives with us. We are also working on an exciting new project of hacking the podcast form itself. This goes back to conversations that we had with Alice Wong and Marcel LaFlamme and Cathy Hannabach in this season. We're trying to ask the question of why a podcast just has to be an .mp3 file. In the spirit of critical design, we want to explore ways that podcasts can for example incorporate American Sign Language, video, image descriptions, and other features that are central to specific (and multiple) disability cultures. Our goal with these episodes is not to produce a single standard of accessibility (to say "this is the most accessible type of podcast and all podcasts must do this one thing"), but to use media and design for open-ended experiments in what we think of as unfinished crip technoscience. 

We're off for the summer, but hope to be back in the fall. Until then, please be in touch if you have any questions or suggestions for future episodes. And thank you again for listening...and reading the transcripts!


You’ve been listening to Contra*: a podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld. Contra* is a production of the Critical Design Lab, Kevin Gotkin, Aimi Hamraie, Cassandra Hartblay, Maggie Mang, Jarah Moesch, and Leah Samples. Follow us on Twitter at @criticaldesignl and learn more about our projects at http://www.mapping-access.com

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