In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geography of Disability

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Geography Geography of Disability
Dan Jacobson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0064


Geography of disability explores disabled peoples’ experiences of space and place; it is a broad research area in which geography overlaps with many other disciplines. Disability, in the most general sense, refers to individuals with mind and body differences, commonly referred to as physical or intellectual impairments. Geographies of disability investigate the relationships between the geographical environment and complex and fluid interactions with the nature of an individual’s impairment. The role of society is explored as a mechanism for including or marginalizing people with disabilities. Geography of disability refers to the landscape of disabled people’s experience, from the urban to the rural and from the microscale of household mobility to the accessibility of transportation networks across cities and countries. Research includes individuals with visible and nonvisible disabilities; for example, a person in a wheelchair as well as an individual with psychiatric illness. In the built environment, geographers study the visible manifestations of environmental adaption, such as availability of wheelchair ramps or the lack thereof. This research is extended into a range of sociospatial processes that surround issues of disablement; a range of social, political, and cultural factors; and the complex interactions among power, space, and materiality. The term disability is used to have different fluid and variable meanings in different contexts and is often contested by the philosophical approach of the researcher.

General Overviews

Given both the diversity and variable nature of disabilities and the intersection with other disciplines, from sociology and cultural studies to health science and rehabilitation science, a comprehensive introduction to the field is problematic. This is further complicated by the evolving and dynamic nature of geographers’ engagement with disability. However, Butler and Parr 1999 provides a good starting point that illustrates the complexities of illness, impairment, and disability and offers an array of research on these issues. Gleeson 1999 explores how geography shapes the experiences of disabled peoples, examining the relationship between space and disability. Imrie 1996 provides an international perspective on the inequity of access to the built environment and extends this to explore the interwoven nature of society and the marginalization of people with disabilities. Park, et al. 1998 provides an excellent geographical review of classic texts from outside of geography that provide access to thorough overviews of disability. Shakespeare 1998, a reader on disability studies, provides a broad social-science perspective on disability theory and equality. Barton 1996 moves the discussion of disability away from medical and psychological models, introducing discussion and reflections with alternative perspectives reflecting the increasing sociological interest in the field. In Oliver 2009 (first published in 1996), works from disability theory to practice are included. In encyclopedias, succinct overviews of geographies of disability are provided in Jacobson 2006, and a more detailed, thorough, and nuanced overview is included in Chouinard 2001, each providing links to other readings.

  • Barton, Len, ed. Disability and Society: Emerging Issues and Insights. Longman Sociology. London and New York: Longman, 1996.

    This work opens up the debate away from medical and psychological discussions of disability, toward a discussion of the material and social conditions and relations of society as disabling. The contributors, both disabled and nondisabled, provide a lively and varied discussion. A good starting point for undergraduate students.

  • Butler, Ruth, and Hester Parr, eds. Mind and Body Spaces: Geographies of Illness, Impairment, and Disability. Critical Geographies 1. New York and London: Routledge, 1999.

    Provides a comprehensive introduction to the diversity of disability, and geographers’ approach to its research. International in nature, from a first-world perspective, with contributions from North America, Europe, and Australia. Introduces a range of geographical spatial scales and extends these to the wider sociocultural, political, and economic environments.

  • Chouinard, Vera. “Disability, Geography of.” In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Vol. 6. Edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, 3701–3704. Amsterdam and New York: Elsevier, 2001.

    A detailed overview of geography and disability, from a critical perspective, discussing why such a subdiscipline is needed and commenting on existing research topics and future challenges and directions.

  • Gleeson, Brendan. Geographies of Disability. New York and London: Routledge, 1999.

    Explores how geography shapes the experiences of disabled people, examining the relationship between space and disability. Presents critical theories of disability, space, and embodiment then places issues within a historical context and discusses contemporary scenarios of disability, including the topics of community care and accessibility regulation.

  • Imrie, Robert. Disability and the City: International Perspectives. London: Paul Chapman, 1996.

    Addresses roles of “design professionals,” architects, and planners in the interrelationships among disability, physical access, and the built environment that marginalize disabled people, often one of the poorest groups in Western societies, who are lacking in power, education, and opportunities. Relevant to final-year geography, planning, and architecture courses and postgraduate planning courses.

  • Jacobson, Dan. “Disability, Geography of.” In Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Edited by Barney Warf, 109–111. Thousand Oaks, CA, and London: SAGE, 2006.

    A succinct introduction to the area of inquiry, in an accessible encyclopedia on human geography.

  • Oliver, Michael. Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 2009.

    A reworked and wide-ranging collection of essays that update the fundamental principles of disability, citizenship, and community care; social policy and welfare; education; rehabilitation; and the politics of new social movements in their international context. Includes new discussions of rehabilitation, special education, and normalization.

  • Park, Deborah C., John P. Radford, and Michael H. Vickers. “Disability Studies in Human Geography.” Progress in Human Geography 22.2 (April 1998): 208–233.

    DOI: 10.1191/030913298672928786

    A thorough overview of all themes of disability research in human geography. The article provided a review of multiple papers and a thematic classification of prior research. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Shakespeare, Tom, ed. The Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives. London and New York: Cassell, 1998.

    A broad range of essays that explore the intellectual implications of disability, from a social (in)equality perspective. Academics from a range of social-science backgrounds bring their insights and perspectives to comment on existing theory and contemporary debates of the time.

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