About this page:

This site is aimed at architectural students, their tutors and others who are interested in new ways of exploring relationships between architecture and disability. This page introduces key themes.

Key terms

Each section will highlight key terms relating to the aspects of disability and architecture discussed.

Or visit the full glossary of key terms


Key references for each page can be found here.

Or visit the full bibliography

Related links

Each page will suggest some relevant websites.

Or visit the full list of links

Welcome to So What is Normal?

Introducing SWIN

Project by Jon Adams and Melissa Mostyn at InQbate, April 2008

© Jos Boys

Architecture is centrally about designing for people. Making places more accessible and design more 'inclusive' for everyone is obviously a good thing. But that doesn't mean it is a simple thing to do. Unfortunately it is hard to think about how differences between human beings can or should make an impact on design. It is all too easy to just to read the technical guidance on what disabled people 'need' in terms of 'access' and treat this as an add-on (ramps, lifts and handrails) to 'normal' building design.

So What is Normal? aims to 'locate' disability differently. We ask, instead, how re-thinking the diversity of, and differences between people, can be generative, creative and enjoyable in the design process. For us disability is neither a special category nor a problem to be solved. Instead re-imagining (dis)abilities becomes a beginning, a means of exploring alternative and innovative approaches to learning and practicing design.

The SWIN website is an educational resource, offering diverse examples and different voices as to what such an attitude and approach to disability and architecture might mean. It is not our aim to tell practitioners, tutors or students what to do. Rather, we hope to open up debate and new possibilities; to share thinking, learning and designing from an alternative perspective; and to imagine a time when disability/diversity/difference is not a boring restraint on architecture, but radical, stylish and the coolest place to be.....

Social Norms

© photograph sarah pickthall

We are seen by many to behave beyond social norms: 'ranting and raving'- when spaces are consistently designed that render us stuck. We are not abnormal: our diversity labels shoves us in a bag marked 'divergence from the norm'. It's time to get out of the bag and into the pot.


© Jos Boys

The Learning section looks at how disability is currently taught within architectural education in the UK and raises some issues about how it could be taught differently.

Go to learning

Slow stir

© photograph Sarah Pickthall

Take soup for instance. Once construed, we see a hushed slow-stirred thing of beauty. A spoon easily moves through, yet to slurp and chew we find this liquor is full of surprising textures and possibilities, evoking memories and a sense of simple-things shared.


© Jos Boys

Central to exploring disability and architecture is listening to the experiences of disabled and deaf people. This is not about 'doing what disabled people want' though. It is about challenging simplistic assumptions around disablity; about learning from issues of difference which affect all of us at some time or another in our lives.

Go to noticing


© Jos Boys

This section explores how disability has got 'stuck' in assumptions about accessibility - merely a simple technical and functional solution, added-on to the 'normal' business of architecture. Instead, we want to explore ways of enjoying diversity as a creative generator for every aspect of architectural design.

Rather than acting as our bodies are 'usually' mobile, independent and healthy, we want to accept - and even appreciate - the inherent frailty and variety of human beings. And we want to see what that effects that might have on how we design.

Go to designing



The history of disability and architecture is often hidden; not easy to find in textbooks or other sources. But it also shows us a lot about how attitudes to disability have changed over time, and the impact this has had on architectural design. Exploring some of the resources in British Architectural Library (BAL) is a beginning for unravelling some of these issues.

Go to histories


© Noemi Lakmaier

The 're-thinking' section outlines problems with the simplistic divisions often made between disabled and 'able-bodied'. It suggests that instead we understand ourselves as a mixture of ambiguous categories and begin to challenge the assumptions behind 'what is normal'. This will help us re-think relationships between disability and architecture.

Go to re-thinking


© photograph Sarah Pickthall

Access and Inclusion is more often than not considered as a bolt on or afterthought and never as an intrinsic part of creative design: beforethought or in-transit-thinking is a process where designers and disabled people might find ways to move through space together, responding as they go.


© Jos Boys

So how should things change? Here, we offer just one alternative concept to suggest ways forward in thinking differently about disability and design. Instead of disability being separated out from other architectural concerns (beauty, sustainabllity, theory, etc.,) and dealt with absentmindedly as it's a 'special case', we want it to have a central impact on how architecture engages with everything it does.

So - as an alternative to accessibility and inclusive design we start with a manifesto for Slow Space....

Go to futures

Using this website

The So What is Normal website has been put together in a variety of different voices. The main pages cover key questions and issues, with examples and quotations in grey boxes.

The interspersed yellow 'snippets' are mainly by artist Sarah Pickthall, together with journalist/writer David Watson, Paul Redfern and others.

These pages can be browsed or searched as required. In addition, on the left hand side of the page, are related references, articles, links and a glossary of terms.

The supporting articles cover key issues in much greater depth. These can be read online or downloaded.

All resources are for free public and educational use; but please reference the So What Is Normal site. You can contact us for more information, to tell us about how you have used the SWIN site, or to suggest additional links and resources.