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Introduction:
The recent decades have witnessed the rise of
neo-liberalism, which has spread across the globe like a “vast tidal wave of
institutional reform and discursive adjustment, entailing much destruction” (Harvey,
2006: 145), substantially affecting the evolution of cities. However, these
neo-liberalist agendas have become subject to a number of contentions, most
commonly in the form of urban social activities, campaigns, and movements,
encompassing Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the ‘Right to the City’ at the core of
their claims and struggles. Having said that, the ‘Right to the City’ has
become a popular debate among academics, with a great deal of focus on the
working class, the homeless, the youth and the immigrants. While the disability
rights movement can be deemed and recognized under each of these groups, there
has been minimal allusion to the plea of this movement falling victim to urban
exclusion, alienation and marginalization. In retrospect, Lefebvre’s concept
has extreme contemporary relevance to the disability rights movement, who
continue to struggle for their recognized space and place in the city, and in
asserting their fundamental rights (Pierce, Williams and Martin, 2016).
Therefore, the disability rights movement will cover the ‘whose rights,’ cities
throughout the United Kingdom will cover the ‘what city’ and ‘what rights’ will
be further explored in this case study, as there are currently over 13.3
million disabled people in the UK, representing almost one in five of the
population (Disabled Living Foundation, 2017).

The definition
of a ‘right’:

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In its most
rudimentary form, a ‘right’ can be defined as “a moral or legal entitlement to
have or do something” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2018). This, however, extends to
how rights control contemporary perceptions of what actions are legitimate and
which institutions are fair, and signify inherent aspects of governments, laws,
and morals (Wenar, 2005). Rights can be categorized into natural entitlement
and legal entitlement, in which the former embodies rights which originate from
human nature, or God-granted, and are not dependent upon the laws, customs,
beliefs of a certain society, hence they are universal and unchanging over time
(Definitions.net, 2018). The latter embodies human rights, which originate from
human laws, customs, or statutes, and are constructed by man, with citizenship
regarded as the foundation of legal rights (Definitions.net, 2018).

 

Furthermore,
rights can be individual or group, where individual rights are generally
associated with the natural right of being human, while group rights are
generally associated with the rights of a nation or self-determination for a
group (Wenar, 2005). Ultimately, rights constitute an integral part of
civilization, the backbone of society and culture, where the government’s purpose
is to preserve these rights, which spans from the right to vote to the right to
work and education. These are all innate across all races, sexes, ethnicities
and religions.

 

The concept
of the ‘Right to the City’:

The concept of ‘the Right to the City,’ (RttC) conceived by Henri
Lefebvre in his 1968 book ‘Le Droit à la ville,’ has become frequently
exploited within debates of contemporary urban and political geography. To
Lefebvre, the idea of the RttC parallels his deep-rooted fascination for urban
life under capitalism, and signifies the events transpiring at the time, in
particular the May 1968 events in Paris, characterized by student
demonstrations and workers’ strikes (Attoh, 2012). Lefebvre asserts that the
RttC can exclusively be understood as “a cry and a demand” (Lefebvre, 1996
1968: 158) and “a transformed and renewed right to urban life” (Lefebvre,
1996 1968: 158). In essence, Lefebvre’s concept perceives the city and urban
space as an ‘oeuvre,’ a collaborative artwork of all city dwellers and their
daily routines (Boer and Vries, 2009), or simply, the right to not be
alienated, excluded or marginalized from the spaces of daily life (Mitchell and
Villanueva, 2010). The ‘oeuvre’ conceptualization emphasizes how the use value
of space is the matter of the greatest importance, especially the social
interactions and exchanges that take place. The framework of the RttC
encompasses two key rights, the right to participation and the right to
appropriation; participation enables urban dwellers to wholly partake in
decisions that are responsible for the production of urban space (Boer and de
Vries, 2009), while appropriation involves the right to control urbanization
and urban transformations in order to make it fulfill the population’s needs
(Purcell, 2002). Nonetheless, Lefebvre uses the RttC notion to stress this era
as being the turning point in the city as an exchange value starting to
overwhelm the use value (Fraser, 2017), as a result of privatization,
commodification and production, products of capitalism (Smith and McQuarrie,
2012).

 

On the contrary, in recent years, the RttC has developed into a slogan
embraced by the youth, the lower classes, and the individuals and groups
globally who are experiencing alienation, exclusion or marginalization from
present urban life. Additionally, the catchphrase has been adopted by human
rights activists and development workers (Boer and Vries, 2009), with a
geographical perspective concentrated on the resistance to urban
neo-liberalization, in which Mitchell (2003) accentuates that it has denied
certain individuals and groups access to public spaces in the city. David
Harvey has even gone to the extent of elaborating Lefebvre’s theory as “not
merely a right to access what already exists, but a right to change the city
after our heart’s desire” (Harvey, 2003: 393). The RttC has evolved into an
urban social utopia, symbolizing a united claim for movements internationally
(Isensee, 2013).

 

Case study
– the disability rights movement:

The ‘Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,’ adopted by
the United Nations in 2006, and ratified in 2008, defines a person with
disabilities as “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or
sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their
full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”
(Un.org, 2018). This coalesces into the disability rights movement, an
international social movement which endeavors to obtain equal rights and
opportunities for the individuals living with disabilities, embodying
disabilities of all kinds: physical disabilities, learning disabilities, visual
disabilities and mental health disabilities. The movement’s focuses on
overcoming the nature of the multifaceted barriers that exist, for instance,
attitudinal, physical and social barriers in order to enable people with
disabilities to conduct their everyday lives in the same manner that everyone
else does (Cdc.gov, 2016).

 

The social model of disability puts forward the notion that disabilities
are products of the organization and attitudes of society, rather than an
individual’s impairment and difference in itself (Scope.org.uk, 2018). The
model outlines the basis of the disability rights movement, encompassing the
various barriers that the movement focuses on overcoming, in particular the
attitudinal, physical and social barriers in order to enable people with
disabilities to conduct their everyday lives in the same manner than everyone
else does (Cdc.gov, 2016):
Attitudinal barriers: the most basic
of all barriers, and perhaps the most prevalent in all other barriers, these
include the stigmatized, discriminative and prejudiced perceptions and
behaviors associated with people with disabilities (Cdc.gov, 2016).
Physical barriers: the structural
obstacles in the natural or built environment that restrict mobility and
access, impacting inclusion and participation (GSDRC, 2018).

Social barriers:
the laws and policies in place that
discriminate against people with disabilities, preventing their access to
education and employment (GSDRC, 2018).

 

In parallel with Lefebvre’s analysis that capitalist societies have
hegemonized everyday life and urban spaces, pursuing its agenda of eliminating
the city of all difference, and transformed it into expanses of consumption, it
can be argued that the disability rights movement became imperative emanated
from the social oppression people with disabilities encountered with the rise
of industrial capitalism (Oliver, 1999). The post-industrial city became a
place widespread with social exclusion, particularly with the changes in the
mode of production and social relations. Furthermore, this era marked the
detachment from home and work, and saw the rise of mechanized forms of
production, which “introduced productivity standards, which assumed a ‘normal’
worker’s body and disabled all others” (Gleeson, 1999). This is where the idea
of a body of the site of production, exploitation and consumption, as proposed
by Harvey (2000) is pertinent, and as bodies being social products of
capitalism to serve the purpose of labor and productivity for the accumulation
of capital for the market and State. In addition, this is where ableism and
capitalism converge, undermining the ability for people with disabilities to
become employed and fostering the perception of disabilities as a social problem
in the new urban spaces, with the creation of a new class of ‘disabled’ left
further excluded, alienated and marginalized from society.

 

In capitalist societies, people with disabilities do not possess market
or State power, but rather hinge on the “affordability of welfare and the
altruism which capitalism can fund” (Johnstone, 2006). This, in effect, bounds
disabled people to social control and regulation, which merely exacerbates
urban exclusion, alienation and marginalization and in worst-case scenarios, cons
(Oliver, 1990).

 

In the United Kingdom in particular, according to the UN Committee on the
Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the government’s current legislation has
failed to protect the disability movement’s rights, from rights to education,
work, and housing, despite being a signatory. These failures were emphasized in
the lack of support for disabled people to work, to live independently and to
benefit from social protection without discrimination (Butler, 2017). The UK
has witnessed increasing numbers of disabled children being educated in
segregated “special schools” regardless of the report appealing for disabled
children to be educated in mainstream schools, to provide the absolute elements
of inclusion rather than segregation. Moreover, the employment gap and pay gap
for people with disabilities has widened, with even higher levels of poverty
for people with disabilities and their families as a result of cuts and austerity
policies (Bulman, 2017), where 18% of disabled people aged 16-64 across the UK
were living in food poverty, in comparison with 7.5% of non-disabled people
(Bulman, 2017).

 

Pinpointing London in particular, the harsh reality is that the majority
of vast modern cities do not have the necessary inclusive planning in place, with
the London Tube Map exhibiting the restrictiveness of places to access if one
cannot utilize the stairs (Pinoncely, 2015). There are still many stops in
central London that remain inaccessible, which can immensely influence many
disabled people’s decisions in seeking employment. On the other hand, a survey
carried out by Scope in 2010 manifested the profound nature of social exclusion
of people with disabilities, where almost two in five people claimed to not
know anyone outside of their own family who is disabled, and only one fifth of
the people partaking in the survey had ever worked with a disabled person, in
spite of almost one in five people today being disabled (Coughlan, 2010). This
is because the majority of employers perceive the disabled as individuals that
will simply cost them more to employ.

Figure 1. London Tube Map showing stops with step-free access (Transport
for London, 2015)

 

Conclusion:

The disability rights movement can be understood in terms of ‘the Right
to the City’ as people with disabilities are among the most marginalized groups
in society, with minimal progress being made to overcome the different barriers
that continue to exist in order to establish their recognized space and place
in the city. This can be attributed to how this particular movement has been
consigned to oblivion, deeply oppressed as a result of capitalism, specifically
its characteristics of production, exploitation and consumption which has
ultimately deemed disabled people unproductive and spawned the stigma,
discrimination and prejudice attitudes against them. The United Kingdom’s
current legislations have been unsuccessful in defending and preserving the disability
movement rights, with austerity policies exacerbating the situation. It is of
utmost importance, in order to fulfill the demand for ‘the Right to the City,’
for inherent changes to take place for disabled people to execute their
day-to-day activities with the same accessibility as everyone else and to be
exempt from urban exclusion, alienation and marginalization. 

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