Canadian Journal of SoCiology/CahierS CanadienS de SoCiologie 33(1) 2008 37
“To Pee or NoT To Pee?” ordiNary Talk
abouT exTraordiNary exclusioNs iN a
Abstract. This paper demonstrates the sorts of questions that arise for socio-
logically informed disability studies scholarship in the midst of the interactional
scenes of access struggles in an educational workplace environment. From my
experiences in the third largest building of a large Canadian university, I have
recollected ordinary talk that justies the exclusion of disabled people and have
pieced together narratives representing things-possible-to-say-today about ac-
cessibility struggles. By using an interpretive sociological approach, this paper
explores how meanings of disability are generated through talk that justies the
exclusive shape and inaccessible structures of university life. I demonstrate that
access is not a synonym for justice but is a beginning place for critical question-
ing where social relations between body and space can be thought anew. This
paper adds to sociologically informed disability studies scholarship by analyzing
how the ordinary everyday narration of disability acts as a social power reprodu-
cing the status-quo even as the material environment changes.
Résumé. Ce texte démontre le genre de questions qui se présentent aux études sur
la condition des personnes handicapées informées par la sociologieen interrogent
les interactions qui émergent autour des luttes pour «l’accès» dans un milieu
de travail scolaire/ académique. Au cours de mes expériences dans un des plus
grands édices dans une des plus grandes universités au Canada, j’ai amassé des
1. I thank the dynamic group of graduate students in my disability studies sem-
inars at OISE/UT with whom this paper began. A part of this paper was pre-
sented at the 7th Annual Second City Conference on Disability Studies in
Education (Chicago 2007), Disability Studies and Inclusive Education: Im-
plications for Practice. I thank the organizers of the conference and offer a
special thanks to Len Barton. His engaged discussion with me undoubtedly
enhanced the analysis here. My work is also funded by a standard SSHRC
grant “Organizing Disablement: The University and Disability Experience,”
with co-investigator, Dr. Rod Michalko. [#410-2006-2132].
38 Canadian Journal of SoCiology/CahierS CanadienS de SoCiologie 33(1) 2008
paroles quotidiennes qui justient l’exclusion des personnes handicapées. J’ai
rassemblé des narratifs représentants ce-qui-est possible-de-dire aujourd’hui sur
la lutte pour l’accessibilité. En utilisant une approche sociologique interprétativ-
iste, ce texte illustre la façon dont les signications de l’incapacité sont générés
par un discours qui rends légitime la construction exclusive ainsi que les struc-
tures inaccessible de la vie universitaire. Dans ce texte, je démontre que l’accès
n’est pas synonyme de justice mais, par contre, est un point de départ pour la
réexion critique où les relations sociaux entre corps et espace peut être con-
sidéré à nouveau. Ce texte contribue aux études sur la condition des personnes
handicapées informées par la sociologie en analysant la façon dont la narration
ordinaire et quotidienne de l’incapacité peut continuer à, en même temps que
l’environnement physique change, agir comme pouvoir social qui reproduit le
The truth about stories is that that is all we are.
Thomas King 2003:2.
You know, I mean, things just weren’t built with people
with disabilities in mind. That’s why there are no
accessible washrooms here.
An Ordinary Story 2007.
Disability studies must recognize that its critique should
be trained on the institution of the academy as much as
on the social and political context outside its walls.
Snyder and Mitchell 2006:196.
Distinguishing itself from the established knowledge regimes of “cure
or care” of bodily “decit or deviance,” disability studies treats dis-
ability not as an individual biological matter, but as a social phenom-
enon requiring critical inquiry (Finkelstein 1998:33; also, http://www.
disability-archive.leeds.ac.uk/ 11/15/07). Disability is conceived of,
and studied as, representative of the cultural environment in which and
through which our lives as embodied beings always appear. “Historic-
ally, disabled people have been the objects of study but not purveyors
of the knowledge base of disability” and this notion is knotted together
with the university environment in which disability appears as little more
than a myriad of undesired difculties (Snyder and Mitchell 2006:198).
This creates an intimate relation between establishing disability stud-
ies as an important form of critical knowledge production within the
university, and creating accessible learning environments where teach-
ers and students, learning communities, can thrive. The development of
“to Pee or not to Pee?”: ordinary talk about extraordinary exCluSionS 39
disability studies must coincide with the development of a more inclu-
sive physical and social environment. The obvious connection between
access and disability studies is, however, often just that — obvious and
This paper addresses access as a ght for inclusion and participation,
as well as a struggle to open accessibility as a space for theorizing and as
a space of questions. Interest in improving access relies on questioning
inaccessibility. This paper reveals the sort of questions that arise for dis-
ability studies scholarship in the interactional access struggles within edu-
cational environments. Without theory, the obvious, yet intimate, relation
between the environment and disability studies becomes an unimagina-
tive relation to justice and scholarship. Theorizing disability’s appear-
ance as a justied absence, for instance, avoids turning access struggles
into a boundary-building process tacitly reestablishing who is in and who
is out. Questioning access discourse provides an opportunity to rethink
and rewrite the meaning of access under contemporary conditions.
Using a disability studies approach informed by interpretive sociol-
ogy, I will examine the ordinary ways that body/environment relations
are articulated. Ordinary talk justies the shape of daily life by relying
on unexamined conceptions of disability. This provides an opportunity
to explore how meanings of disability are generated. Taken-for-grant-
ed conceptions of disability are one way in which disabled people2 are
viewed as irrelevant and absent. This paper adds to the growing body
of disability studies scholarship analyzing how the ordinary use of un-
examined conceptions of disability reproduces the status-quo even as the
material environment changes. Working at the crossroads of the material
and ideological production of disability, I will reveal access not to be a
synonym for justice but a beginning place for critical questioning.
I turn now to a discussion of the setting from which narratives re-
garding access emanate. I turn as well to a further discussion of what
an interpretive sociological approach has to offer a disability studies’
2. The social model of disability (Oliver 1996; 1990) suggests using “disabled
people” rather than the more popular phrase “people with disabilities.” Neither
people-rst language nor separating people from both their embodied differ-
ences and the social environment (as the Canadian government and WHO con-
stantly and consistently recommend) has signicantly changed the oppressive
everyday meaning of disability. For an analysis of the social signicance of
disability labels as they constitute different relations to the politics of the body,
consider, Bickenbach 1993; McColl and Jongbloed 2006; Michalko 2002;
Overboe 1999; Pothier and Devlin 2005; Titchkosky 2001; 2007a. For critical
work regarding the interrelation of access, disability, and education, consider
Chouinard 2001; Livingston 2000; Low 1996; Opini 2006; Stienstra 2006.
40 Canadian Journal of SoCiology/CahierS CanadienS de SoCiologie 33(1) 2008
interest in theorizing the interrelation of bodies, environment, and know-
the Setting and interPretive MethodS of SoCial inquiry
The setting within which I work is a twelve-story university building
of 350,000 square feet. It is the third largest building on Canada’s lar-
gest and arguably most diverse university campus. The building’s main
entrance is ramped and the building has state-of-the-art elevators, with
audio indication. I began to work in this building in July 2006 and discov-
ered that there were no washrooms meeting either university or provin-
cial minimum disability accessibility standards. Ironically, some of these
inaccessible washrooms were marked with the universal icon of access.
One such icon was on a women’s washroom door that opened about
twenty-four inches; accessing this washroom meant nimbly squeezing
through the doorway. I was disturbed by the lack of access and, in the
course of daily life, I talked to many people in the building about the
lack of an accessible washroom and the obviously incorrect signage. My
intent was not to make this concern into a research project, nor was I co-
vertly collecting data. I was simply attempting to live with, understand,
and x a problem.
In drawing attention to these barriers, I also was given a plethora
of stories regarding the lack of accessible washrooms as well as stories
explaining the posting of inappropriate access signs. I was struck by the
various stories-at-the-ready that are part of this workplace environment
and likely part of every Western(ized) work place, judging by the ab-
sence of physically disabled people from all of my places of work.3 Al-
though accessibility features of one top-oor washroom were improved,
there remained a wealth of justications for the absence of “wheelchair
washrooms,” and justications for the signs that said otherwise.4 The
physical environment has continued to change; plans were made for a
“really” accessible washroom, which has been built. As of 2007, it is in
3. For empirical documentation regarding exclusion, consider the Canadian
governments’ Participation Activity Limitation Survey (PALS) (Statistics
Canada 2001) which shows the combined unemployment, underemployment,
and nonlabour force participation rate for “persons with disabilities” to be
around 80 percent. The United Nations (2003–04) has characterized the fate
of disabled people around the globe as a “silent crisis.”
4. I was incredulous and returned again and again to the scenes of exclusion
thinking perhaps that I was wrong, that maybe my dyslexic ways got the
measurements all mixed up. A professional environmental audit was conduct-
ed conrming inaccessible washrooms throughout the building.
“to Pee or not to Pee?”: ordinary talk about extraordinary exCluSionS 41
the library on the main oor and is available during regular library hours.
The narratives justifying the absence of basic access remain.
Inaccessibility is disquieting. In Writing the Social, Dorothy Smith
(1999:8–9) says of her research that
. . . I have not started writing on the basis of research data. Rather, I have
started with a sense of problem, of something going on, some disquiet,
and of something there that could be explicated. [Inquiry] . . . prots from
dialogue between what we mean to say and what we discover we have
said, and, of course, the work of rewriting to embrace what we nd we
have said that is beyond or other than our intentions.
This suggests that the daily experience of inaccessibility represents
a “sense of disquiet” from which inquiry can and should spring. Such
inquiry does not necessarily require the generation of traditional forms
of social scientic data, but it does require attending to the ways things
can be said to be as they are. Methodically engaging what I am calling
the “say-able” is a way to uncover the meaning we are making of our
Thinking about the intersections of social differences in public spaces
— even washrooms whose taken-for-granted status is almost necessary
— is essential for gaining an understanding of how everyday embodied
experiences are managed by discourses of competition for scarce resour-
ces, hetero-normative expectations, colonizing powers, and neoliberal
demands. My analysis, however, focuses on stories of justication for
“what is”; things said which present disability as something either to be
explained by or subjugated to “what is.” My analysis of justication nar-
ratives follows a fundamental assumption of interpretive social inquiry:
how people justify “what is,” is an interpretive social act. The interpret-
ive act of justication is intimately tied to collective understandings of
the meaning of what is. As an interpretive social act, justication is not
merely second order to the fact of exclusion; it is our “facticity,” it is a
“form of human life,” it is how we do exclusion as well as generate its
everyday sensibility (Gadamer 1991:216, 220). This means that justify-
ing “what is” governs our ability to imaginatively relate to our lives as
Acknowledging the dynamic social character of justication breaks
the illusion of a self-sufcient self that can secure, once and for all, the
5. For further consideration of the governance of embodiment/disability and
imagination, consider, for example, Ahmed 2006; Bhabha 1994; Butler 1997;
Diprose 2005; Frazee 2006; Foucault 1988; McRuer 2006; Michalko 2002;
Parekh 2007; Shildrick 2002; Stiker 1999; Titchkosky 2002; 2003a; 2007b;
42 Canadian Journal of SoCiology/CahierS CanadienS de SoCiologie 33(1) 2008
really good/bad, or really strong/weak, or any other nal solution for
“what is.” Rather than a nal pronouncement on what “really” caused
people to say what they said, I am interested in how we perform the
meaning of our lives together as we talk about the reasons for the shape
of this collective life. Examining justication as the performance of the
meaning of disability raises the possibility of making something new of
the collective from which these say-able things emanate. This is pursing
research with a purpose (Barnes et al. 2002; Barton and Oliver, 1997).
The purpose of my work is to regard accessibility talk as a space of ques-
tions representing the complicated interpretive nature of our embodi-
ment (Titchkosky 2007a).
I turn now to a discussion of everyday narratives of justication.
The interpretive work of analyzing things said in the stream of daily life,
the say-able, regarding the justiable character of exclusion, requires
a different relation to “data” than is usual in the social sciences. The
narratives addressed in this paper are an amalgam, or a composite, of
people’s justications for the lack, in this large university building, of
a washroom that met minimum accessibility requirements in 2006. An
amalgam of narratives is related to Peter Clough’s (2002:8) suggestion
that bringing together various narrative fragments from a given locale
protects the anonymity of the speakers while allowing the theorist to
“speak to the heart of consciousness.” Acknowledging Canadian Tri-
council ethical concerns, my narratives harm no one since no individual
is represented and the narratives stem from recollections of things said
in the course of my daily life, rather than a deliberate collection of nar-
ratives (see, van den Hoonaard 2001). These narratives represent things
that are say-able and treated by all involved as sensible.
Consider the following: “You know, I mean, things just weren’t
built with people with disabilities in mind. That’s why there are no ac-
cessible washrooms here.” This statement represents one way to make
inaccessibility sensible under contemporary conditions. This ordinary
“truth claim” is a type of say-able thing that I have heard many times, in
both rural and urban environments, and in reference to all sorts of struc-
tures. It is a comment so ordinary that survey data might never solicit it
since survey techniques require some level of reection. It is a say-able
thing experienced within the ow, not of structured research, but only of
“to Pee or not to Pee?”: ordinary talk about extraordinary exCluSionS 43
I have amalgamated fragments of narratives, spoken by various
people, to create ve stories representing typical ways to justify the ex-
clusion of disability. Insofar as everyday language can be understood
as a “treasure house of ready-made pre-constituted types,” the “whole
history of the linguistic group is mirrored in its way of saying things”
(Schutz 1970:96–97), there is no need to individualize these words. My
interest is simply in the say-able.
All the say-able things in these stories were stated in the presence of
others, who sometimes treated them as wrong or distasteful. However,
no one found anything said bafing. These are “sensible” say-ables.
What interests me in this creative amalgam, is not individual identity but
sheer sensibility. Whether these narratives are judged “good” or “bad,”
all of us will nd the amalgams sensible. Insofar as the say-able makes
sense, we can ask what sort of sense it makes of inaccessibility. From
an interpretive sociological perspective, all say-able things represent the
cultural grounds of possibility from which they emanate; or, as Mau-
rice Merleau-Ponty (1958:214) says, every “. . . word is a gesture, and its
meaning, a world.”
Examining locally produced everyday narratives justifying the ex-
clusion of disabled people requires the social theorist to act, as Hélène
Cixous (2001:6) advises, like “a little nail stuck in the gap” between
the various things that are say-able about disability. Rosemarie Garland-
Thomson, feminist disability studies scholar, emphasizes the productive
gap between the representation of disability and the lived actuality of dis-
ability. Our lives with disability may be informed by received represen-
tations, but they also exceed any representational conne. In Queer Phe-
nomenology, Sara Ahmed (2006:161) speaks of a gap requiring an ability
to proceed obliquely between “reception and possession.” Meaning can
be uncovered by an inquiry that acts like a little nail in the gap between
received stories of justied absence and the possession of disquiet. The
gap of concern here lies between the everyday reception of ways justify-
ing the exclusion of disabled people from university environments and
the conicting versions of “normal bodies” that we come to possess in
these encounters. I turn now to the stories.
1. Some faculty and staff say that they fought hard, some twenty years
ago, just to get a ramp for the front door of the building. They sug-
gest that is probably when the signs of universal access were posted
44 Canadian Journal of SoCiology/CahierS CanadienS de SoCiologie 33(1) 2008
everywhere, including on inaccessible washroom doors. Once post-
ed, “How were we to know any better?”
2. People say that in the distant past, human rights lawyers used to rent
space to meet here. It is said that some of these lawyers were wheel-
chair users. This group began to push for accessible washrooms.
They failed and took their meetings elsewhere. Still, the inaccess-
ible washrooms got the universal sign of access posted on them.
A lawyer wonders, “Maybe a cubicle inside the inaccessible wash-
room got a wider door?”
3. Those responsible for the building say that others keep talking about
how students in wheelchairs are going to come to school here, but
they never show up. “Why go through the expense?” As for the
signs being posted, “Isn’t something better than nothing?” Agitated
by the suggestion that people are getting stuck attempting to enter
these washrooms, someone pointedly reasons, “If they can’t use the
washrooms what are they doing here anyway?”
4. Administrators, ofcially responsible for making structural deci-
sions and allocating funds, say that they are working on it. You can’t
do everything in a day. In fact, maybe we need to just slow down.
Thirty years ago, in good faith, the signs were put up and it is pos-
sible that, within a decade, we might be moving to a new building.
“Remember,” they say, “we did secure the special fund to build a
fully equipped accessible showcase classroom. Maybe some of that
fund could be used to build a washroom?”
5. All sorts of people are perplexed to nd out about the inaccessibil-
ity and puzzled that those in authority do not consider the lack of a
washroom meeting minimum accessibility standards to be a crisis
for those working in the building. This perplexity, verging on in-
credulity, conditions what it means to work in this building. “My
Department requested those in charge to at least take down the mis-
leading signs. But the signs are still there. What should we do?”
Let us now proceed to be a little nail stuck in the gap between the
stories we have just received and discern what kind of sense they rep-
Making exCluSion reaSonable
When people come to notice that physical barriers prevent the participa-
tion of some people, comments about such exclusions erupt. One dom-
inant type of comment is justication. People say, because of the past,
because of the passage of time, because of ten, twenty, thirty years, be-
“to Pee or not to Pee?”: ordinary talk about extraordinary exCluSionS 45
cause it won’t make a difference, because we don’t know what to do . . .
the washrooms remain inaccessible. Or . . . in order to ght for ramps,
in order to balance costs and benets, in order to take care of who be-
longs, or in order to make plans for the future while living with a harsh
paradox of the inaccessible labeled accessible . . . the washrooms remain
as (what) is. The reasons may not be agreeable to some and many of the
reasons are unjust. Still, this situation of inaccessibility is say-able in the
language of causality, that is, the taken-for-granted logic of “If A, then
B” obtains in every narrative fragment. The causal language paints the
radical lack of access in an ordinary hue. This ordinary hue glosses the
issue of human rights, questions of belonging, and other consequences in
the here and now that accompany the power to exclude. Clearly, justify-
ing what is can hold at bay considerations of what is not.
Even if people oppose the offered reasons, it remains an unexamined
“fact” of social life that it is reasonable to seek a reason for the lack
of access. Giving reasons is an acceptable response, and surprises no
one. Whether the reasons for lack of access are judged good or bad, the
social activity of people seeking reasons makes lack of access reason-
able. Thus, lack of access is a space for and of reason. An empiricist
approach would consider what caused people to give this or that reason,
investigate the veracity of the claims behind the reason given, or even
measure the prevalence of this or that reason — none of which addresses
the social “fact” that these washrooms bar wheelchair users, and that
narrations of this “fact” maintain the status quo. An interpretive socio-
logical perspective considers the productive power of the social act of
reasoned justication giving. The question now is: what sort of reality,
or denition of the situation (McHugh 1968), is being produced from
A sensible explanation makes the on-going exclusion of disabled
people appear more or less ordinary; the context of exclusion seems part
of a rational project. “Because of our past” and “in order to move into the
future” are ways to create an ordinary sense of what is and is not going
on. Giving reasons makes inaccessibility ordinary. All such reasoning
relies upon and sustains the commonsense understanding of disability as
excludable. Radical inaccessibility is not unique to this particular univer-
sity building, and everyday uses of “because-of and in-order-to motives”
are not unique to this setting (Schutz 1970). Providing such motives a-
vors any social situation with sensibility. The particular meaning that is
achieved by these justication narratives remains a poignant question
worthy of consideration. What, then, has been made sensible?
46 Canadian Journal of SoCiology/CahierS CanadienS de SoCiologie 33(1) 2008
inCluding diSability aS a JuStifiably exCludable tyPe
The giving of reasons makes the inaccessible washroom situation sens-
ible by relying on “including disability as an excludable type” (Titch-
kosky 2003b:518). The building is missing accessible washrooms and
yet it is not; the building is not missing disabled people and yet it is. The
building’s missing washroom becomes sensible when justied by the
conception of disability as excludable. Disability is included as justi-
ably absent; if present, it appears in the form of an unimagined or un-
wanted question — “What are they doing here anyway?” In this situa-
tion, “accessibility” becomes a space for making the missing disabled
people part of a reasonable exclusion.
One way disability is represented in everyday life is as a justiably
excluded type. This poignant paradox is not unique to my workplace. The
phrase “Oh, she’s gone on disability,” attests to the structured ubiquity of
the inclusion of disability as an excludable type. I am not arguing against
disability insurance. Rather, I am arguing for a consideration of ordin-
ary talk as a constitutive power in creating the meaning of people. Some
ways of making disability present as reasonably excluded entail people
living with disability as a justied absence. As a justiable absence, this
conception of disability acts as a barrier to inclusion for some disabled
people. Unless the relation between environment and its participants is
theorized and thereby disturbed, disability will continue to be included
as an excludable type even as the physical environment changes. The
discursive act of making something “justiably absent” ultimately has
much to do with how we delimit the shape of possible worlds. In Judith
Butler’s (2004:2) terms, justifying absence performs, and makes present,
what counts as “viable and non-viable” lives.
How does included-as-excludable appear not only sensible but also
justiable as an understanding of the lives of disabled people? Acting like
a little nail in the gap between the multiple stories of justiable exclusion
provokes a reexive engagement with the ordinary-ness of the paradox
of disability as excludable type. I return to the justication narratives to
nd some difference in the same (Bhabha 1994); to live otherwise than
ordinary (van Mannen 1990); and to offer an alternative relation to the
alterity (Cixous 2001) in the discursive space that disability represents.
What meanings might lie in the gaps between the most extraordinary
and ordinary aspects of say-able things about disability? Accessibility
talk as a space of questions requires the theorist to address the ambiguity
in these sensible stories and reveal something of the cultural grounds of
“to Pee or not to Pee?”: ordinary talk about extraordinary exCluSionS 47
The narratives display different methods of justication: utilitarian cost/
benet rationality, bureaucratic sequencing of tasks, unnished struggles
and unmade decisions, and many more. While the end results might be
common to these narratives, the justifying processes depicted in them are
not identical. The third narrative, suggesting that disabled people are nei-
ther desirable participants nor imbued with rights, is the most obviously
egregious of the stories and most in need of interrogation. Yet, I am un-
easy with beginning where it seems most obvious to do so. It is with this
disquieting “preliminary, inarticulate understanding,” as Hannah Arendt
(1994:310) calls it, of an obvious offense as well as a need to seek the
nonobvious in the obvious, that I now proceed.
Again, the third story:
Those responsible for the building say that professors keep talking about
how students in wheelchairs are going to come to school here, but they
never show up. “Why go through the expense?” As for the signs being
posted, “Isn’t something better than nothing?” Agitated by the sugges-
tion that people are getting stuck attempting to enter these washrooms,
someone pointedly reasons, “If they can’t use the washrooms what are
they doing here anyway?”
In this story resides a treasure house of ready-made types — there
are those who belong, those who do not, and those who can explain the
situation of belonging to and for all. Professors are characterized as un-
realistic, but are still identied as a type belonging in the workplace. On
the condition that they are not wheelchair users, professors, like students,
are part of this story since they are “obviously” part of the university
setting. The expectation of some professors that disabled people belong
in the setting is regarded as a false expectation. Wheelchair users “never
show up,” are an “expense”; they can only show up as a questionable
type, that is, “what are they doing here anyway?” “They,” as a type, do
not belong and so can never really be present; if present, “they” are only
questionably so. Thus, “something [inaccurate universal access signs, re-
stricted access hours] is better than nothing,” because nothing is the only
alternative on offer. As partial participants, disabled students are typied
as visitors who have overstayed their welcome rather than as desired or
Interestingly, story number three does not claim that it is unrealis-
tic to have an interest in accessible washrooms in public buildings. The
inaccessible washrooms are not the targets of this justication. The tar-
gets are disabled students; their absence is justied and their presence is
48 Canadian Journal of SoCiology/CahierS CanadienS de SoCiologie 33(1) 2008
made questionable. Notice also that disabled professors or staff members
are not mentioned and remain unimagined types. “Students with disabil-
ities” do not belong and are regarded as never really present anyway.
Since the disabled type does not belong, there is no imagined possibility
of it belonging to any of the other “ready-made types” common to this
workplace, such as professor or staff member (Michalko 1999:41ff).
The third story suggests that professors have an unrealistic interest
in disability since it is rare, transitory, unwelcome, not present, expen-
sive, and only found in students of whom it is not clear “what they are
doing here anyway.” This story participates in an extraordinarily com-
mon belief that disability is not only rare but also nothing but limit and
lack, unexpected and undesirable, or simply, “trouble” (Abberley 1998;
McRuer 2007; Michalko 2008). The third narrative, then, represents an
extreme example of including disability as an excludable type where ex-
clusion is made normal because disability is made not-normal. Disability
is not normal, not imagined, not welcomed, not needed, not common, not
necessary, and not going to come to mind as the type for whom buildings
are built or services provided.
Arguing against the inclusion of a type by invoking the type itself
is straightforwardly an act of discrimination. Such open discrimination
makes story three stick out as very different from the other four stories.
Is there a connection between the obvious discrimination of story three
and the other stories’ more ordinary use of histories of the environment
to narrate justiable exclusion? What possibilities arise if we treat story
three not as aberrant prejudice (a bad apple) but, instead, as the heart
of the consciousness of embodiment in this setting?
6 The third story is
composed of narrative fragments said among people who did not re-
spond as if they were confused. If people are always a “consciousness
among consciousness” (Merleau-Ponty 1958:xiv), then what is said must
be treated in relation to other say-able things, not as a symptom of some
individual state of affairs. Individualizing the say-able treats things said
as representative of a unique subjectivity or as a symptom of a warped
origin. Resisting individualizing the say-able allows the interrogation
6. M. Mac an Ghaill (2000:314) says that “An idealist analysis of the curricu-
lum that reduces the heterosexist structuring of schooling to aberrant teacher
prejudice is insufcient to explain the complex social interaction of white
male and female teachers with black male students in racialized, male domin-
ated institutions.” I follow through on this understanding as it connects with
other physical and ideological educational structures. In this way, I avoid the
need to say that really it is strong or weak curriculum, or really it is good or
bad physical structures that lead to the radical devaluation of disability in the
Canadian educational milieu. Instead, made by culture, disability, in relation
to textbooks or washrooms, is a good place to examine culture.
“to Pee or not to Pee?”: ordinary talk about extraordinary exCluSionS 49
of the wider cultural grounds of embodiment. Let us continue, then, to
explore the contradictory sensibility of these say-able things about dis-
It is, of course, empirically incorrect to say that people who use wheel-
chairs never show up, since they do. The building is ramped. Even the
obviously discriminatory third narrative acknowledges that people who
use wheelchairs do show up. Still, the narratives presented here reect
an environment where justication of exclusion is achieved by saying
that disabled people are somehow not present. There are other seemingly
nondiscriminatory say-able things that also exemplify the understanding
that disabled people are not present: “Well, I am sure those in charge
of the building would stop saying such awful things, if they had to deal
with people in wheelchairs.” How does making disability present as an
absence make sense?
The concrete truth or falsity of the claim of absence is not what gen-
erates this talk. Saying disability is not here works with absence as a
useful presence. Saying disabled people are not present, even though not
empirically true, justies a mythical absence as part of the productive
sensibility maintaining what is, the status quo. The myth that disabled
people fail to show up sustains what Colin Barnes (1998:65) says should
by now be an unsustainable belief: “disability is a medical problem af-
fecting a small proportion of the population.”
7 The logical contradic-
tion between “They never show up” and “What are they doing here,
anyway?” gains its sensibility through an unrevealed conception of dis-
ability. Perhaps it is this conception that prevents a collective from ex-
periencing the remarkable situation of including disability as justiably
absent while making the actual presence of disability not perceivable or
perceivable only as a question.
Scholars have addressed the issue of the relation between conception
and perception, or reception and possession, with regards to race (Ahmed
2006; Bhabha 1994; Dyer 1993; Gilroy 2000; King 2003; Parekh 2007).
Paul Gilroy, for example, speaks of the connection between the percep-
7. Canadian government counts of the population of “people with disabilities”
have varied between 4.2 and 3.6 million people; the majority of those count-
ed are of working age 15–65 and the majority of these people are said to
have a mild or moderate mobility or agility impairment. (HRDC, Advancing
the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities 2006, especially appendix A). For
other disability rates see, http://www.disabilityworld.org/links/Research
50 Canadian Journal of SoCiology/CahierS CanadienS de SoCiologie 33(1) 2008
tion of race and the production of racist structures. He says: “The human
sensorium has had to be educated” (Gilroy 2000:252). For David Howes
(1991), the sensorium consists of the culturally specic ways our senses
are hierarchically ordered: in the West, for example, vision is dominant.
The notion of the sensorium is similar to the phenomenological insist-
ence that “. . . there is no such thing as a simple act of perception since
anything we are perceiving appears against a dense backdrop of past,
present and future experiences” (Weiss 2003:27; see also Classen 1993;
Titchkosky 2003b, 2007a). Our way of sensing disability and making it
sensible reects the cultural education of the sensorium; it reects the
dense weave of historical experience that organizes perception and the
relations among the senses.
So, the sensorium has had an education. Wheelchair users either
never show up or show up as a questionable presence; they are not ne-
cessarily perceivable in the course of daily life; thus, disability is not
conceived as part of the ordinary sensibility of what it means to belong
in the university environment. I am not making an empirical claim that
this is true for all people at all times. Instead, I am emphasizing that this
is one meaning of disability operating in this workplace environment. If
the presence of disability as a living absence was not already meaningful
in the environment, the say-able things recounted in this paper would not
strike me or you as sensible.
The education of the collective sensorium is really, playing on Gil-
roy’s words, a dis-education. This dis-education teaches that the category
of legitimate participant does not include wheelchair users. The dis-edu-
cation of the sensorium includes a way to sense and make sensible the
legitimate participants with their legitimated “normal” accommodation
expenses: lighting, chairs, technology, privacy, directional signs, pleas-
ing eye-scapes and, of course, a place to pee. Legitimated participants
rarely confront access as a question. They can take for granted the whole
massive infrastructure of and for able-ist consumption and use, which
the sensorium has educated them (us) to consider normal and even nat-
ural. The plethora of disciplines studying disabled people as decient,
combined with a dearth of environmental decit studies, are also part of
the dis-education of the sensorium. The hundreds of missing students,
faculty, and staff with physical impairments are not experienced as miss-
The dis-education of the sensorium leaves some people unable to
imagine that disability is, indeed, missing. The sensibility of the ve
narratives relies on the nonpresence of disability’s absence. Still, there is
more to reveal about our collective dis-education through an analysis of
everyday, even ordinary, say-able acts of justication.
“to Pee or not to Pee?”: ordinary talk about extraordinary exCluSionS 51
a MoSt ordinary Story and diS-eduCation
Through the social act of justication, the sensorium receives a dis-edu-
cation and this is the signicance of the story that strikes me, and I im-
agine, most readers, as the most reasonable of the ve stories — story
Some faculty and staff say that they fought hard, some twenty years ago,
just to get a ramp for the front door of the building. They suggest that
is probably when the signs of universal access were posted everywhere,
including on inaccessible washroom doors. Once posted, “How were we
to know any better?”
This story suggests that access has been a battle that netted some
changes such as a ramped front entrance. But other changes occurred
too — universal access signs were posted. The story suggests that it was
difcult for people to recognize the lack of an accessible washroom be-
cause there were signs that said otherwise. In a culture that makes vision
dominant in the sensorium, icons indicating access in a visual manner
are powerful organizers of how people orient to the environment. What
keeps people from knowing better or from questioning the social loca-
tion of the icon’s power? To suppose that disability “just wasn’t an issue
and so just didn’t come to mind” begs the question of what makes it
sensible that a disability consciousness can be kept at bay. As a way to
address the questions arising from a critical relation to the reasonable-
ness of story number one, I reconsider the actual physical location of,
and thus social relation to, these visual icons of access.
In 2006, this twelve-story building had, among its more than two
dozen washrooms, ve washroom doors marked with the icon of access.
On the main oor, the icon appeared on both the men’s and women’s
washroom door. People who work and are educated in this building
witnessed wheelchair users getting stuck entering the main oor wash-
rooms because of the wall immediately confronting anyone pushing the
door open. On the fth oor, among its many busy classrooms, a men’s
and women’s washroom are marked with the universal icon of access.
The woman’s fth oor washroom “accessible” door opens only about
twenty-four inches. Of the population with current access to this build-
ing, many are likely to nd all the washrooms a “tight squeeze.”
8. Unlike these four washrooms, the nal “accessible” washroom bears no sign
of gender, can be found on the uppermost oor, and was made more access-
ible in 2007. Still, this washroom also does not meet minimum university
accessibility standards. At the time of this publication, an accessible wash-
52 Canadian Journal of SoCiology/CahierS CanadienS de SoCiologie 33(1) 2008
The sensorium is so well dis-educated in this environment that the
missing disabled people remain invisible despite the icons of access
around the building, and on posters and pamphlets advertising public
events; this dis-education even reaches into the manner of bodily ex-
perience. For some people, the bodily activity of squeezing through the
“accessible” doorway is not perceived, but not because this building
contains a mob of aberrant prejudicial people. Something has organized
the possibility of not perceiving the contradiction between the access
sign and the lived experience of using the doors. This dis-education has,
moreover, left people feeling like they could not know any better.
The dis-education of the sensorium has dulled the sense of bodily
touch in social space (proprioception), which precludes knowing what
the body could teach — these are very narrow doorways. It is possible to
not perceive how the body gures in space as a matter of belonging and
participation. The dis-education of the sensorium, through the ordinary
daily life of working in this building, has been a powerful one. The sen-
sorium of a legitimated participant may not sense at least one of its own
bodily activities in this social space; is unable to attend to the absence
of disabled faculty, students, and staff; and is not set up to press for any
more access since perceiving inaccessibility has been made difcult.
Because of the dis-education the sensorium has received, there is
no readily apparent knowledge of missing accessible washrooms as an
emergency. There is, however, a suggestion in the fourth narrative that
“maybe we need to just slow down” and to not waste time or money.
In the face of disability congured as a justiably excludable type, un-
expected participant, or not really present, it is difcult to know what to
do. Recall that even the lawyers in narrative two say that in the face of
this prima facie discrimination they took their meetings elsewhere.
Richard Dyer (1993:1) says that, “How we are seen determines in
part how we are treated; how we treat others is based on how we see
them; such seeing comes from representation.” That which is say-able
as sensible is a form of representation. Transposing Dyer’s privileging
of sight to a more generalized sense of perception, we can continue to
treat access as a space of questions. Justications not only discriminate
and exclude, but also provide a variety of ways of saying that disability
is an unexpected non-participant, a negligible entity. This suggests that
the ordinary ways of narrating exclusion need further critical attention if
we are to explore representations of nonviable and nondesirable forms of
life supporting the extraordinary activity of discrimination.
room was built on the main oor of the library and is available for use during
regular library hours.
“to Pee or not to Pee?”: ordinary talk about extraordinary exCluSionS 53
doing ordinary diSability relationS
In “On doing ‘being ordinary,’ ” Harvey Sacks (1984:414) says that:
A kind of remarkable thing is how, in ordinary conversation, people in
reporting on some event, report what we might see to be, not what hap-
pened, but the ordinariness of what happened. . . . Whatever you may think
about what it is to be an ordinary person in the world, an initial shift is not
to think of “an ordinary person” as some person, but as somebody having
as one’s job, as one’s constant preoccupation, doing ‘being ordinary.’
Sacks suggests that the most remarkable thing to consider is that in
the goings-on of daily life we have as our job, as our constant preoccu-
pation, ordinary ways of being ordinary in the face of what might best
be characterized as extraordinary events. Why the third largest build-
ing on the largest Canadian university campus lacked a single accessible
washroom up until 2006 will likely remain a remarkable mystery. Still,
following Sacks, it is even more remarkable to notice the various ways
of reporting “not what happened, but the ordinariness of what happened
. . .” to make the extraordinary appear ordinary.
Everyday conversations perform ordinary ways to orient to or re-
late to happenings. Justication constitutes the meaningfulness of social
existence as well as ordinary relations to it. Justications of inaccess-
ibility have transformed the startling, the extraordinary, or the wondrous
into an ordinary event, thus achieving a sense of ordinariness for both
self and others. By justifying extraordinary barriers to inclusion, we can
do the work of appearing as an ordinary person. What does being an or-
dinary person taking an ordinary interest in the workplace environment
Narratives of justication make it ordinary to disregard the absence
of an accessible washroom as a noticeable barrier. The washroom is
not missing; what is missing is any need to respond to such a barrier
to participation. Justication, with its inherent lack of alarm, makes it
reasonable not to notice the missing accessible washroom, and keeps the
obviously incorrect signage from coming to collective attention. No one
is responsible, because there is nothing to respond to — the absence has
been made absent, and ordinarily so.
Still, making absence not-noticeable requires work, ordinary work,
and sometimes a lot of it. Lack of alarm or of surprise, lack of a sense of
emergency or even shame, all keep the nonnoticeability of missing ac-
cessible washrooms, or of access signs on inaccessible doorways, as well
as the nonnoticeability of all the missing disabled students, faculty, staff,
and administrators from coming to attention. It is, after all, ordinary to
54 Canadian Journal of SoCiology/CahierS CanadienS de SoCiologie 33(1) 2008
not notice what is taken to be irrelevant; it is even more ordinary to not
notice our own complicity in the constitution of irrelevancy. Social con-
texts frame the realm of the noticeable for us; it is the doing of ordinary
to stay within that frame, and show others that we are doing so, doing the
job of being ordinary. It is, however, also ordinary to say that one cares
about disability, which glosses the contradiction of the appearance of the
icon of access on washrooms without any attention to the actual social
meaning of the icon.
As contradictory as it may seem, “disinterested-caring” or, better,
“careless-caring,” is an ordinary way for people to relate to disability. A
gesture to the act of caring, such as placing an icon of access on a door,
poster, or pamphlet, is sensibly sufcient; worrying about how we care
about disability would not be an ordinary way to address what is other-
wise fairly irrelevant. Noticing the irrelevant is not ordinary, so “careless-
ly” using the universal icon of access does the work of dis-attending to
disability while gesturing toward a caring inclusion (Titchkosky 2007b).
Not being alarmed in the face of radical exclusion does another inter-
esting job on behalf of the ordinary. Ordinariness of no-alarm is achieved
by attending to time. One ordinary response to building structures is as
signiers of time, attested to by the disciplines of architecture, history,
art, etc. In many ghts for access, “historical oversight” is a rhetorical
device suggesting that nothing can be done because a building structured
by old standards is too old and too expensive to change, while main-
taining the ordinary sense that things would change were it not for this
stiing history. This rhetoric does not work as well in the situation that I
am analyzing here (which may explain the great variety of justicatory
narratives at the ready.) Unlike “the building is too old” justication, the
justications for this particular building treat as given the relative access
of this building, the importance of placing icons of access signs here and
there, and the sense that, “Well, you know, this building is far better than
most other building on campus.” These say-able things do not ordinarily
t with saying that the building is antiquated, a reection of historical
mistakes, and thus representative of the structured impossibility of inclu-
sion of disabled people now or in the future.
A different sense of time nonetheless justies this inaccessible state-
of-affairs. It does not necessarily report on “what actually happened,”
but it does normalize the ordinariness of not really noticing the lack of
accessible washrooms or, in noticing, not being upset or worried. Instead
of articulating “time” as a “backwards past” against which the present is
too powerless to act, “time” is said to be an historical artifact. People’s
efforts “over time” have made changes and will, in “good time,” effect
more change. This evolutionary version of time, almost void of human
“to Pee or not to Pee?”: ordinary talk about extraordinary exCluSionS 55
agency (let alone human rights), organizes a sense of the ordinariness
of not worrying about inaccessibility. Mentioning twenty or thirty years
into the past, or the need to slow down, or mentioning a decade into the
future, all indicate the “not-necessary-to-notice” status of the inaccess-
ible washroom situation. These ways of talking about washroom “time”
are all the more remarkable for achieving a sense of the ordinary that
transcends a sense of washroom use as an urgent and universal matter.
“When you got to go, you got to go!” has become “When you got to go,
you got to leave.” Speaking about a past or a future in the language of
ten, twenty, or even thirty years, shows that it is ordinary to not regard
this as an emergency situation; this is a situation that has evolved slowly
over time and can be expected to devolve in the same way. But what is
the ordinary object that is given this patient evolutionary framework?
Perhaps the object served by this patient evolutionary framework is
“modern man” — it is the doing of the ordinariness of colonial, capitalist
powers as these give rise to the formation of subjectivity. The modern col-
onizing subject, even the concept of “person” under modern conditions,
needs some sort of boundary at the edges of which resides the possibility
of dening and shoring up belonging and not belonging, relevancy and
irrelevancy, personhood and its Other. Disability, in this instance, can be
characterized as the abject underside of legitimated existence, included
as an excludable type by signifying it as an always-absent presence. As
a living paradox, disability is where the question of access becomes not
only “Access for whom?” but, also, “Access for what?”
access issues are a space where the question of what it means to be an
ordinary person perceived as ordinarily belonging are implicitly worked
out and sustained.
re-thinking the StorieS We already are
My critical engagement with who and what is “in” starts from the pos-
ition that there is no good reason for disabled people to be structured
out of education. Through a disability studies analysis, informed by an
interpretive sociological approach, this paper used physical accessibility
in educational environments to examine the social organization of dis-
ability as an absent presence included as an excludable type. Instead of
treating “access” as a substantive state of affairs that an organization
can possess, I imagined access as a space of say-able things where ques-
tions of embodiment can be pursued. That bodily experience is achieved
through everyday talk about some other body’s absence, suggests the
9. I thank Katie Aubrecht (2007) for leading me to this question.
56 Canadian Journal of SoCiology/CahierS CanadienS de SoCiologie 33(1) 2008
need for a critical and self-reective way of living with the stories we
all already tell and have already become. This self-reective interpretive
turn, gives rise to the need to examine the way we make sense of each
other, to tell a different story about inaccessibility, and to learn a little bit
more about the interpretive issues faced by those of us who are presup-
posed to be legitimate viable participants.
From my privileged position as expected participant, I was animated
by a desire to not reproduce justications of wheelchair users’ absence,
and so I took a special interest in how lack of access ordinarily appears
of little concern beyond its rationalization. The more ordinary ways of
narrating exclusion as justiable serve as a poignant occasion for theor-
etic attention where representations of viable and nonviable participants
can be exposed, interrogated, and, perhaps, come to be understood in
new or different ways. Through an analysis of the extraordinary act of
exclusion, this paper has narrated our ordinary lives together as reect-
ive of the desire to make sensible and ordinary the ways we do not live
together. Thinking through narrative fragments that justify exclusion is,
of course, another way of living together. Our ordinary ways of talking
about what is justiable play a signicant role in making up the meaning
of lives, and the doing of ordinary life supports the extraordinary activity
Fundamentally, it is necessary to theoretically grapple with questions
of accessibility while not reducing access to only a political-legal issue.
Every ght for access (or against it) is also an interpretive space in need
of theorizing since access is always tied to the production of daily life
as embodied beings. Even when access is conceived of as secured the
question of interpretation remains. The struggle to secure access, like the
act of barring it, relies on the interpretive milieu that made possible this
struggle in the rst place. Theorizing the struggle for access provides for
the possibility of disrupting this milieu, just as building an accessible
washroom will also disrupt this milieu. This means that words that jus-
tify the exclusion of disability can be read as an opportunity to examine
how disability is brought to consciousness under contemporary condi-
tions and perhaps we can begin to re-make that which has conditioned
consciousness by telling a new story about who we are.
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Dr. Tanya Titchkosky’s various publications in the eld of interpretive
disability studies include two books, Reading and Writing Disability
Differently: The Textured Life of Embodiment (University of Toronto
Press, 2007), and Disability, Self and Society (University of Toronto
Press, 2003). Tanya holds the newly established faculty position in Dis-
ability Studies in the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies at
OISE, University of Toronto. Her research and teaching, informed by
her dyslexia, address the interpretive relations that ground disability in
everyday life. Currently, with the support of a standard SSHRC grant,
she is exploring disability experience as it is expressed in the academy.