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Reading: The Educated Sensorium and the Inclusion of Disabled People as Excludable


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The Educated Sensorium and the Inclusion of Disabled People as Excludable


Tanya Titchkosky

OISE, University of Toronto, CA
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This paper explores the perception of inaccessibility as it reflects the cultural education of the sensorium. Following Gilroy, sensorium is taken here to mean the dense weave of historical experience that organizes the relations among the senses and perception itself. With this concept, I examine texts related to accessibility management at a large Canadian University. These texts include a 2017–18 email exchange regarding accessibility between a subway station and a university building, as well as the first policy statement on ‘The University and Accessibility for Disabled Persons’ from 1981. Through these texts, I show how people, now as then, are taught to sense disability as excludable. The paper demonstrates how the sensorium is educated to exclude a concern for the history, responsibility, as well as the touch of the actual physical environment. In pursuit of a re-education of the sensorium, this paper reveals how disabled people are sensed as potentially includable in the future while excludable in the present.

How to Cite: Titchkosky, T., 2019. The Educated Sensorium and the Inclusion of Disabled People as Excludable. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 21(1), pp.282–290. DOI:
  Published on 04 Dec 2019
 Accepted on 11 Nov 2019            Submitted on 30 Sep 2018


The noticing of disability exclusion, as well as inclusion, reflects the education a sensorium has received. The ‘sensorium’ refers to the ordering of the senses, that is, to the dense weave of historical experiences organizing not only the relations among the senses but also organizing what can be sensed, and how (Gilroy 2005). The sensorium is a term indicative of the cultural ordering of the senses through and through. Proceeding from the premise that ways of perceiving inaccessibility reflect the sensorium, allows this paper to regard everyday ways of noticing and describing inaccessibility to serve as representations of the cultural education of the sensorium.

Attending to the sensorium’s organization represents a commitment to regard disability always in relations to others and within historical contexts that include conceptions of individuals and limitations, but also much more. My focus is on how disability and accessibility are perceived and acted on as this might teach us about how the ‘normal’ (read Western/Modern/dominate) sensorium is ordered. This interest in the cultural ordering of the sensorium, leads to the animating question of this paper: what sort of education must the sensorium receive in order to manage disability inclusion in the ways that it does?

To explore this question, I will explicate bureaucratically generated statements on disability to reveal how disability is and is not perceived as this reflects the education of the sensorium. By ‘statements’ I mean texts based on noticing inaccessibility or disability, such as notices of closures, email communication and announcements, posted signage, policy statements, etc. I am suggesting that statements about disability and texts about inclusion can be read for how they reflect a way a sensing. Further, a routine way of sensing tells us something about how the sensorium must have been organized so as to perceive disability in this way or that. By narrating a 2017–18 struggle to have three steps removed from a shared entrance space between the University of Toronto building and a Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) subway station in relation to the University’s first accessibility statement from 1981, I aim to reveal how the past education of the sensorium continues to guide perception today. This is not, however, a causal argument. Instead, I am asking what grounds the possibility of perceiving and making disability and in(ex)clusion make sense?

I will reveal the sensorium that enables a way of sensing disability that reverberates within people’s apperception of inaccessibility within the university milieu. Such an educated sensorium lends ‘reason’ to sensing disabled persons as an excludable type while maintaining a modernist thrust that exemplifies a vapid functionalist version of being human made fit to belong only when easily incorporated into the latest technological developments, that is, made to fit as the ‘abled-disabled’ (Titchkosky 2003, 2011). By attending to how disability is both sensed and made sense of as an anticipated but unexpected participant, I pursue ‘…an analysis of the social workings of disability by way of its integration [which] is a method more critical, even more militant, than to address it in terms of exclusion’ (Stiker 1999: 15).

First, though, a discussion of the sensorium.

The Sensorium

I didn’t notice, but I do now, now that…. We may be familiar with the experience of being untouched by what the environment enables us to ignore. Not noticing is culturally orchestrated since what seems not to touch us, has much to do with us. That an environment seems not to affect some people owes its possibility to the contemporary ordering of an ongoing individualized sensorium (sensing for itself), demonstrating that senses are culturally embedded making the sensorium a cultural phenomenon (Gilroy 2000: 42). Sensorium, here, refers to the ordering of the senses (and sensibility) while simultaneously insisting that the experience of sensuality is a basic form of enworldedness (see Classen 1998; Howes 2003, especially 1991: 167–68; Gilroy 2005, 2000; Merleau-Ponty 1992; Tønder 2015). There is, from this position, nothing natural about perceiving inaccessibility or not; their achievement is a culturally orchestrated act of sensory education.

An education of the sensorium is enacted at the intertwining of body, text, and environment. This can be examined as ‘discursive power’ writ large on the body (Conboy, Medina and Stanbury 1997; Mitchell 2015; Tremain 2015). My interest, however, is on the sensual educative intertwining of body, text, and environment as co-constitutional of a life-world. This is where the sense of the subject reflects the world ordering that enables it and where, as phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty (1992: xi–xii) insists the perceiving subject and the perceived object cannot really be understood as separate since both potentiate the other. Thus, the individualized sensorium, seemingly at one with the routine order of daily life, can be read for how it reflects the dense weave of historical experience that organizes perception as well as the relation among the senses ‘normally.’

Power, in this case, a person’s fit with common sense1 can be understood as those embodied ways that a sensorium ordered in conformity to the dominant norms, is ordered by the dense weave of colonial and imperial existence informed by Western(ized) thought that supports neo-liberal governance. This ordering of the sensorium is where, as Nicholas Mirzoeff (2011: 6, 8) says, ‘visuality is war.’ Not only does vision ‘oversee’ all the senses but it has obtained the power to control what and how people perceive as if this is natural and not cultural. The supremacy of sight empowered to disregard its grounds of enablement means that the consequences of this war supports the rule of the eye while overruling many other ways of sensing our being in, and of, the world. Moreover, as I will show, what the eye seems not to see, it also does not miss.

The sensorium is a concept that emphasizes that not only are certain people a target of an oppressive gaze but also that perception itself is ordered by the dense weave of cultural inheritance – such as is the medico-bureaucratic gaze. Considering the sensorium is a way for critical disability studies to resist the idea that culture is ‘blind and deaf’ to its ‘crippling’ colonial past and its ‘debilitating’ imperial present while also showing how accepted modern ways of sensing and moving, especially seeing itself, are enworlded phenomena in need of analysis (Goodley et al., 2016; Titchkosky 2015). In the words of blind theorist and storyteller, Rod Michalko (2017, 2010, 1998), eyes don’t see, people do; and people see with and through culture, but as with all supremacy it does not see itself as such. This inattentiveness requires a taken-for-granted relation to how we sense justice and injustice and the term sensorium is a way to begin to attend. But, how has the sensorium been educated?

i. The Education of the Sensorium

The work of Paul Gilroy is crucial in understanding the education of the sensorium. His Against Race shows the historical connection between ‘race-thinking’ and the ways we sense that which is taken as a sign of race; which he understands as the key referent, if not the whole constitution of the not-quite human. Gilroy calls this process ‘race-thinking’ – a form of consciousness that distorts the promises of democracy and diversity within the human condition that operates through visual mechanisms of modernity (Gilroy 2000: 11–53). Race-thinking is a way of noticing that makes the less than human come to our senses as it makes sense as ‘a means to categorize and divide humankind’ (Gilroy 2000: 17). Made first through the notion of the color line and then through the idea of bio-economic perception, race-thinking discerns the qualified participant as one who fits neatly into commodity culture and corporate profit. Race-thinking requires the education of the sensorium where people sense difference as race and sense race as a division and diminishment constitutive of the infra-human. Such thinking is achieved through visual mechanisms allowing people, whether with a cursory glance or into the depths of the cells (see also Roberts 2011: 57), to see differences called ‘race.’

Gilroy (2005), in Postcolonial Melancholia says,

‘Race thinking has proliferated, but in order to maintain its grip of the world, it has had to change (37) … in a world where our understanding of humanity has been irrevocably reshaped by genomics, biotechnologies and self-conscious biocolonialism (38). [Thus] The role of race thinking in rendering the bodies of natives, slaves, and other infrahumans worthless or expendable is a pivotal issue in specifying how the racialization of governmental practice impacted upon the pragmatic exercise of colonial power’ (45).

Consider practices of governing inclusion and its racialization over time. The unjust social ordering of movement, that is, how people sense who can move, when and how, has been made to appear anathema for some – recall the historical development and demand of passbooks, permission slips, immigration papers, passports, etc. The dominant way of sensing movement is organized by the visible signs of access in the built environment, alongside its physical structure and layout. I am not just speaking of the difference between the office tower and the gym, for example. More basically, there is also the movement in or out of any environment with its complicated relation between the sensual organization of space and a person’s movement under a gaze making and marking who belongs and who does not.

This is why considering the way we are taught to perceive is so crucial for an analysis of the sensorium and also why pointing at discrimination is not the same as unraveling how we come to perceive some people as excludable types, types made less than human. Again, as Gilroy (2000: 42, see also 35) says: ‘There is no raw, untrained perception dwelling in the body. The sensorium has had to be educated to the appreciation of racial differences.’ Raciological perception is connected to disability and other forms of assumed anti-value and this perception has been educated through naturalized encounters with the environment (Gilroy 2000: 43; Goodley 2014; Oliver 1990). The ways that disabled people, if noticed, are noticed as naturally excludable are of special interest. Raciological perception encounters some humans as ‘naturally’ devalued and less than human, and its reverberations in able-ist perception includes naturalizing the environment while de-selecting some people, that is, making some people excludable and seemingly sensibly or reasonably so.

This capacity to at some point sense the absence of people while rendering it justifiable can be called ‘disability-thinking.’ Disability-thinking is the use of the category disability that reconfirms the problem that the category is meant to highlight or potentially dissolve. ‘Look, we need to help that poor cripple’ can be a way to perceive disability as natural impoverishment. Seeing some people through the sense of their natural impoverishment supports the modern inclination to employ visual mechanisms to see if they are really poor or really disabled. Typically, support or help is meted out (or not) that reproduces what it aims to perceive – disability-as-poverty (Hughes 2015: 994–5) as, for example, produced through state supports granted below a living wage. What remains untouched is the sensorium taught to see in line with its disability-thinking.

People may notice the exclusionary prowess of the environment. Yet, via disability-thinking, that we notice might not change anything. I want to explore this sense of no-change related to the education of the sensorium as it fills in a sense of absent people not with images of who is missing but, instead, with a robust sense of the difficulties of inclusion. It is not merely that it is not normal to include the excludable; instead, it is that we are educated to sense the appearance of disability as the excludable; disability is included as excludable through disability-thinking, which is one method of making an infra-human. Infra-humans have no claim on a reciprocity of recognition since they cannot be imagined as missing insofar as they (we) are perceived only as necessarily absent, occasionally anticipated, but always unexpected.

Sensing of No Change

To illustrate the taken-for-granted character of the education of the sensorium, I will narrate an attempt to have three shallow stairs ramped that lie between the underground concourse of a large twelve story university building, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE U of T), and the St. George subway station in Toronto. This subway station, with both north/south and east/west lines, is a major transit hub. Since 1969, there has been direct underground access into the OISE building. Direct, that is, only for some people.

On October 5th, 2017, thousands of students, faculty and staff received an email from OISE administration announcing that the direct entrance way between the St. George Subway and the OISE Building would be closed for up to three months in order to install new ‘Presto’ gates, and the email said ‘very sorry for the inconvenience.’2 The Presto gates are marketed as an upgrade by the TTC, and as ‘modernization.’ The TTC public website proclaims that, ‘The new gates will provide easier access and offer greater flexibility for flow of traffic into and out of stations’ (TTC, 2017).

Upon receiving the email announcing the temporary closure of the direct-access gate into OISE, the radical exclusionary prowess of the old gates came to my mind – Perhaps, I thought, the new gates would be accessible? Not only were the original narrow floor-to-ceiling turnstile gates made only for bi-pedal skinny people carrying almost nothing; there were three shallow stairs, unmarked and un-railed, spanning the entire width of the direct entranceway between the subway station and the university building.

According to the TTC’s modernization publically posted plans, the new gates would be accessible; unmentioned, or perhaps unnoticed, were the three shallow unmarked and un-railed stairs that span the entire entranceway. I began making email and telephone inquiries. Once pointed out, university officials saw the problem but needed the TTC’s participation to address it. The TTC’s position initially was that this subway station already had one accessible entrance elsewhere, albeit in a place with no direct access into the building. Perhaps, a TTC representative went on to argue in an email addressed to me and university officials, a ‘future budget cycle’ would include enhanced access, but not now. Clearly, the noticing of barriers comes into view but as a problem for the future. Forced into the unperceived background is the present – people with impairments will need to use an elevator to exit the station, move outside, and go around the block in order to enter the building. Modernization, easier access, greater flow and flexibility secured by the new Presto gate instillation would, just like the old gates, not include, and even disappears, people with impairments.3

Perceiving inaccessibility as reasonable in the present since it is sensed only as something to think about in the future even while in the midst of a modernization project can, of course, be read as disability-insensitive hypocritical corporate justification based on a budget model that has yet to take disabled people into account. Yet, with plans to install accessible gates, the act of not attending to the three stairs as a barrier to disabled people is presented as sensible in response to requests for reconsideration and was reiterated to those who threatened protests. ‘Currently,’ wrote one senior transit official in response to our email notice of escalating protests ‘the only accessible entrance at St George Station is at the Bedford Road entrance.’ The email continued:

‘The wide aisle gate at OISE won’t have any accessible markings on it (i.e. stickers etc) it [the gate] is at the entrance because all of our entrances will have at least one wide-aisle gate at them. So this new fare line doesn’t change anything at this entrance other than the removal of the high gates in favour of the paddle-style gates.’

The accessible gate has become conceptualized as merely a ‘wide-aisle gate’ and even though it can accommodate people using mobility devices, such as, scooters, walkers, or wheelchairs, it remains inaccessible because of the three stairs. There will be no marker, no stickers, no icon of access that would direct the eye to read this gate as an accessibility feature within the transit environment. While new, wide, a symbol of modernization, this gate is now to be perceived as changing nothing, or so it is suggested in the email. Instead of change, people ought to experience old high push gates replaced by a new mechanism, a ‘paddle-style gate.’ The new gates are automated, and sensors make the gate spring open as travelers approach. These gates – described as not changing anything – are the same gates that change the flow and ease of access for many at the second busiest subway station located under the third largest university building in downtown Toronto.

The suggestion is that ‘no sticker’ means no sense of change in accessibility and supposedly dissolves any sense of an access problem. The two-fold function of the no accessibility sticker is that, first, there is nothing to tell the eye that this is a question of access and, second, there is no sense of a need for change to touch the anticipated modern traveler whose bodily movement is expected by, and incorporated into these technological modernizations. No sticker supports other forms of perception as well. Not feeling the increased ease and flow; not seeing changes in who travels such as people accompanied by guide dogs, children, or luggage, or people who use crutches; not experiencing the ease of negotiating the paddle gate, these are some of the many changes that accompany no sense of change. This sense of no-change exists, according to the TTC, if the eye is not given an icon (sticker) of accessibility to read.

What sort of education has the sensorium received whereby people sense their fit with the environment not as a cultural accomplishment but as natural; where the look of a place can over ride its feel; and, where the reign of visuality can mean that an absent sticker might control the sensing of the places in which we find ourselves? Alongside the advent of mass literacy, the eye taught to read can also be told how, and thus what, to see. The primacy of the text-directed-eye can override (oversee) any other sensuous engagement we may have including what sight might mean beyond the logic of literate culture and its ‘imagined community’ (Anderson 1983: 37).

To continue to explore this sense of including the excludable as this is connected to the historical education of the sensorium in the university environment, I turn now to an exploration of the first general statement on disability by the University of Toronto published in 1981.

The Historical Education of the Sensorium

In 1976 the UN general assembly declared 1981 as The International Year of Disabled Persons. The UN suggested that governments should educate their citizens to consider disability as an issue of ‘equalization of opportunities, rehabilitation, and prevention’ and further suggested that ‘social attitudes’ are the ‘major barrier to the realization of the goal of full participation and equality in society by persons with disabilities’ (UN 1981). Many Western universities, including the University of Toronto, developed responses to this declaration and seemed to move away from explicit discrimination against disabled people. Approved in principle by the University of Toronto’s, Governing Council on March 6th 1981, ‘The University and Accessibility for Disabled Persons,’ is a two-page 400-word document. The statement enjoyed wide circulation throughout the University at the time. Today it is found in the university archive: in newsletters, newspapers, and minutes of meetings. Since 1981, the statement has been revamped at least three times. I will show, however, that the sensorium that enabled this way of sensing disability in 1981 remains and that the disability-thinking it supports operates mostly untouched today.

The Statement’s opening gambit reads:

‘The University and Accessibility for Disabled Persons

The University of Toronto, with a very large number of old buildings and sprawling urban campus, can present a formidable challenge to disabled persons. Adaptations have been made at Erindale and Scarborough, but the situation on the St. George Campus remains difficult. The task of reviewing the University’s facilities in terms of physical accessibility, assigning priorities for improvements, and finding funds for the changes that will be necessary, is equally formidable. The financial aspect is particularly troubling in a time when the University’s needs in so many areas are acute, its resources eroded and its prospects for relief in the near future dim.

Given these constraints, it must be recognized that progress will be slow…’

Despite slow progress, ‘steps’ will be taken ‘in the months and years ahead.’ The document suggests six ways to pursue accessibility which I paraphrase as follows: 1.) endorse the UN declaration; 2.) procedurally facilitate integration of disabled people; 3.) encourage faculty and staff to accommodate disabled persons; 4.) seek funds for improving accessibility, where feasible, within 10 years; 5.) work with other provincial academic institutions; and 6.) report annually on progress to the Budget Advisory Committee of the University.

Old buildings and a sprawling campus are represented as challenges to disabled persons. Some environments can be adapted for those who find them challenging. Others, however, cannot. University participants are asked to sense the environment for possible adaptations – is this old, big and difficult; or, is this space newer, small and manageable? Thus, changing the environment requires a review, one that would take into account just exactly what is or is not accessible and what sort of priority should it be allocated given limited funds. Funds for accessibility are further limited by financial restrictions across the university which are said to be ‘acute.’ Given space and the dim future for financial relief, we should recognize that progress will be slow.

The reader’s senses are being educated to notice the difficulty of inclusion. The sensorium is educated to perceive the exclusion of disabled persons not as communal tragedy, not as a result of the exclusionary practices of the university, but as the natural effect of a difficult environment and of scarce financial resources. This perception is not so much the result of ‘social attitudes,’ as the UN suggests, as it is the result of a sensorium educated to perceive the exclusion of disabled persons as ‘natural’ and inclusion as ‘naturally difficult.’ Further, a focus on sensing an inaccessible environment permits the university to leave the development of an accessible environment to the slow progressive march of time. What it means or feels like to be excluded is not the focus and need not be sensed; however, the effort, energy, time, and money to include, if only as a future possibility, is brought forward in its full sensual tedium – ‘it must be recognized that progress will be slow.’

Only in the future might it become possible to include disability. The statement educates us to sense disability as an issue of time and scarce resources (for insiders) rather than as an issue of people whose presence and movement has been made questionable (outsiders). This makes some people noticeable as nearly impossible to consider within university structures. The time of noticing is one that requires more time for those who are already part of the university; perhaps more time to notice the barriers, more time to plan, more time to do something about them – those people naturalized as outsiders. It requires ‘us’ to perceive lack of funds when or if we see ‘them.’ The actual inclusion of people, though – well, it is not yet their time and so prospects are dim. If disability appears it is in the form of ‘not-yet’ (Titchkosky 2010).

The university’s requirement of time to adapt its environment along with the UN’s promotion of rehabilitation and prevention of disability, framed as an imagined equality of opportunity for disabled people, makes the inclusion of disabled people a peculiar project. Merely noticing the difficulty of inclusion seems already to represent progress. ‘Steps’ will be taken ‘in principle’ – that is, in principle we will understand disabled persons as potentially includable if they/we weren’t so difficult and expensive to include. Inclusive measures can take years to implement and even be forgotten along the way because this way of disability-thinking makes disability sensible as always-already excludable and if noticed, noticed only as an unanticipated participant who may be included in the future. Thus, the university remains progressive without progressing; exclusion can be sensed and assessed, yet actual disabled people remain in the realm of the not-yet-includable.

A Sense of Change: Back to the Future

‘November 21, 2017

Dear OISE Faculty, Staff and Students,

We are very pleased to provide an update on the OISE entrance to the St. George TTC station. The TTC, University of Toronto and OISE are fully committed to making the TTC entrance accessible. The TTC has moved the new Presto card entrance further into the station to allow enough space for a ramp to be built over the three existing stairs. The Presto entrance will have two accessible gates, and the estimated opening date is the end of December [2017]. In the meantime, the University and OISE will work on the design …’

The gates will be installed further into the station to facilitate the inclusion of a ramp over the stairs – eventually – once funding issues between the university and the Toronto Transit Commission are settled and once designs are agreed upon. Seven months into 2018, there were still three steps un-ramped, unmarked and un-railed, but the Presto gates – wide, accessible, automated – were installed. Ten months after that, a temporary ramp was added which took much administrative effort to obtain. Eventually, a permanent ramp was installed (spring, 2019). Today, the stairs beside the ramp remain un-railed and unmarked. Along with slow progress, what also remains is the actual daily exclusion of disabled people managed by prioritizing a collective sense of the import of time and money, design and implementation, as well as other administrative interests.

The email above says that the university and the TTC are ‘fully committed to making the TTC entrance accessible.’ This is, of course, a good news email but it is also confirmation of the education the sensorium has received. The commitment to accessibility does not include sensing the difficulty of being a person included as an excludable type. Instead, commitment manifests as a form of perception of time and money as these can be incorporated into plans for potentially enhanced accessibility in the future. When I first began to write this paper, with wind chill, the temperature was minus 30 degrees Celsius and the sidewalks were ice-covered; the curb cuts were buried under chunks of frozen snow. Recall that disabled people are forced to make their way out of the subway, around the block, to get into the building. The year 1969 marks the opening of this building and this subway station (Urban Toronto, 2015) and its built-in exclusions; 2018 includes a new gate marking a new way for participation. Yet, now as then, there is a consistent unexamined history of the education of the sensorium that experiences a heightened sense of difficulty of inclusion even as it does not need to engage how one’s own presence in an environment could be out of touch with its exclusionary prowess. Since 1969, people have been touched by the narrow gateway, the unmarked stairs, the non-automated doors and yet this touch of exclusion is framed as a ‘forward-looking’ sense of possible inclusion of disabled people though prospects are consistently ‘dim’. This has led to the normalization of a plodding sense of change. There is no emergency, no crisis, and those present continue to work in the absence of disability. The reproduction of the infra-human via the naturalization of an exclusionary environment continues and little blocks the view which has been educated to perceive and administrate the many obstacles and financial concerns that keep it so. Such is the bureaucratically educated sensorium made fit for ordinary university and transportation work.

On September 15th, 2018, a temporary ramp over the stairs was installed. Let us imagine that following this the three stairs are marked with luminous rumble strips and are given a handrail. Will this mean that change has arrived? Consider this: as pressure mounted to address the lack of accessibility, officials from the university and the transit system would write that they would ‘pop down,’ as they often put it, ‘to take a look.’ Those who looked at the three shallow stairs spanning the width of the entrance articulated their impressions rapidly and with assurance in follow up emails: this is ‘obviously a problem,’ and ‘obviously an easy fix.’ One university official wrote, ‘This is a no brainer.’ The three shallow unmarked and un-railed stairs began to appear less like a feature of the environment and more like a barrier. Of course, these barriers have been there all along. This sensing of a clear barrier as well as the easy fix became the focus. However, how all this remained out of focus for so long and for so many remains an unacknowledged mystery.

The appearance of the stairs as a barrier happened as the environment started to appear human made; the email regarding regular service disruption and new gate installation denaturalizes the ‘just the way things are’ character of the entrance. Once the stairs were perceived as a barrier, they ‘looked out of place,’ and obviously so. With the stairs now seen as a barrier and as in need of remedy, the entrance way is now marketed as an access achievement. Recall, ‘The TTC, University of Toronto and OISE are fully committed to making the TTC entrance accessible.’ Such a commitment is to a future accessibility initiative, i.e., the acquisition of money, time, design plans and all the rest and this continues to make sense so long as disability remains included as an excludable type, perhaps anticipated but still unexpected. The unacknowledged mystery of the ordering of the educated modern sensorium remains in place. Given the education the sensorium has received, full commitment to accessibility may continue to mean ‘seeing’ barriers and making plans, within the confines of plodding time and constricted budgets, for a future time that nonetheless functions in the here and now as a symbol of multi-institutional commitments to accessibility as the capacity to notice barriers.

The sense that led officials to initially argue that the non-removal of the stairs in their modernization plan amounted to ‘no change’ has disappeared but remains symbolically present insofar as the place and meaning of disability remains the same. The struggle to witness our interrelations to each other and to the environment are not addressed even while improvements are announced. Such good news emails can be read as putting a good face on a bad situation; a public-relations move; or as a hypocritical aggrandizement of corporate power. Or, perhaps, such emails are part of the on-going everyday education of the sensorium within the university environment teaching participants that disabled people should be sensed as excludable, occasionally anticipated but always unexpected. While all these readings are possible and possibly all related, I have pursued the latter (which justifies my close attention to ordinary acts of exclusion and inclusion as educators of the sensorium and potentially provocative of thought).

Concluding Discussion

Barriers were, of course, seen and felt all along by those who were barred from entering the subway and the university building. However, a need to perceive, know, and thus to attend to this, is not part of the routine education of the sensorium. As I have demonstrated, there are a variety of ways that the educated sensorium is trained to transform a sense of the absence of disabled people into a sense of barriers and the difficulty of redress. This education includes the normalization of several practices such as, sense absence but only when prompted to do so; orient to this perception as only a technical and financial concern. Moreover, a shift from accepting the environment as just the way things are to the perception of an obvious problem can happen but with no need to make sense of how. Do not perceive the need to ask – how were these obvious barriers of stairs and gates not seen as such for such a long time? Noticed or not, the participant operating under a sense of belonging is one who is taught to experience no sense of regret, remorse, or responsibility for all those who for so long were excluded, or disappeared, since accessibility is only about the capacity to notice barriers as the difficulty of redress. Thus, the ‘just-there-ness’ of the environment remains in the fore-front as do issues of time, technology, and money. The human-made character of space is both in the background and alienated from what could be perceived. The act of perception itself remains hidden from ‘view.’ Of course, all these lessons show that our relation to the environment is such that it makes the appreciation of embodied difference as well as the noticing of the absence of particular people barely noticeable compared with educating people to ‘see’ barriers. The barriers are noticed but remain; the missing people are not noticed and remain absent.

At the intersection of sensing the movement of people in the physical environment and those who are blocked, we could encounter a greater human potentiality of being in the world – but we do not. The educated sensorium continues to sense absence as somehow reasonable by, for example, making exclusions seem like the natural outcome of money, time, technology and established history. It is the sensorium educated through disability-thinking that has been explored in this paper, but perhaps there is more behind a sensorium steeped in a set of capitalist interests making some humans into fodder for, and others into blockages of, production.

In her psychoanalytic approach to sensation, Lisa Farley (2018: 53) suggests that intense sensory experience makes us feel most alive and ‘This is because inner sensory experiences carry intrinsic value, beyond their instrumental use or inscription into dominant social categories…’ Inner sensual experience is clearly (often inhumanly) ordered by outer instrumental dominant social categories such as who belongs and who is expected. Farley (2018: 53) aims to re-connect these sense experiences to their grounds in our essential interrelatedness. She (ibid.) suggests that we have a chance to loosen ‘the knot that equates sensory experiences with psychopathology and… reminds us of the psychic value of connecting with the sensate parts of the self in ways that preserve, cultivate and reconnect us to the life-sustaining foundation of being human.’ This life-sustaining foundation of being human might well reorder sensation/perception to attune ourselves with the possibilities of humanity, rather than ignoring that attunement. The everyday un-hinging of the environment from how we perceive it is part of the education of the sensorium that enables the naturalization of segregation as well as of the continued disability-thinking that makes some humans appear infrahuman and excludable. There is, after all, no sense that the people reading the email announcements above need to imagine anything about the lives of those who are excluded; imagination is stuck on picturing technical and financial difficulties when (if) barriers are noticed. At the intersection of perception and the environment, there is an education that orders an alienated relation between perceiver and perceived. I end, then, by suggesting that sensing excluded people is done through a sensory defense mechanism where the rationality of a progressive capacity to perceive barriers is framed as symbolic of the difficulty of change thus re-establishing the normalcy of a truncated image of humanity. Insofar as this is true, the on-going education of our sensorium is radically in need of an equally on-going reflection on what is not sensed when people are perceived as if they are functioning ‘normally’ and ‘reasonably.’


1Bourdieu (1989: 21) is helpful here because he suggests that ‘Objective relations of power tend to reproduce themselves in relations of symbolic power. In the symbolic struggle for the production of common sense or, more precisely, for the monopoly over legitimate naming, agents put into action the symbolic capital that they have acquired in previous struggles and which may be juridically guaranteed.’ Thanks to Maddy DeWelles and Diane Farmer for this direction on power. Thanks also to Tim Ross and Rod Michalko for comments on drafts of this paper. 

2Mass circulated emails that initially announced the temporary closure of the subway entrance into the university building are accompanied by a signature tag-line which suggests that the email is intended only for its designated recipient. This tag line was part of all the email exchanges used in this paper. The question of the ethics of my use of emails in this analysis and whether the email speech act can be owned or controlled by its originator has been circumvented by hiding any personal identifying features and by regarding the emails as symbolic, not of individuals, but rather of common institutional ways of perceiving inaccessibility and disability. Regardless, my usage of these emails aligns with the University of Toronto (2011) policy on privacy and freedom of information. 

3Modernization, oriented only to able-bodiedness, serves to produce some people who, made not to fit, appear out of step and behind the times. This can be witnessed in government attempts to explain exclusion, such as those found in Advancing the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Canada (Canada, 2009: 20–21). Their explanation for people being ‘house bound’ is pinned on the severity of an impairment. Even as the government survey records (but does not notice) that ‘lack of access to a washroom’ at the end of a journey is the reason for being ‘house bound’ given by 80% of the respondents. 

Funding Information

This work is supported by a Canadian SSHRC Insight research grant, ‘Re-Imagining Disability: The (Dis) Appearance of Disability in the Academy.’

Competing Interests

There are no competing interests. This paper has been supported by a Canadian Social Sciences and Research Council Insight Grant, “Re-imagining the Appearance and Disappearance of Disability in the Academy,” (435-2016-0313).


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