Seeking 'Spatial Justice' for World's Disabled


Victor Pineda, a doctoral student in urban planning, will return to Dubai on a Fulbright-Hays award in December to monitor the implementation of an ambitious disability rights law. He argues that the built environments we live in largely determine our abilities and who we are.

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"Anyone can fall into the category of becoming disabled," said Victor Pineda, a UCLA doctoral student in urban planning. "It doesn't discriminate by gender, age, race."

Pineda in Dubai with friends

Pineda with friends in Dubai. "When you seek to build for financial return, you lose the perspective of equity. You lose the perspective of mobility. You lose the perspective of diversity."

Nor by nationality. Pineda, who suffers from neuromuscular degeneration, has traveled to Cuba, Thailand, Bosnia, Serbia, Greece, Norway, France, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen to see how people with physical, sensory, and mental limitations get along and to collaborate on documentary films that combat stereotypes about them.

In time to write his dissertation, he's taken a special interest in Dubai, which in 2007 passed an ambitious law guaranteeing a wide range of rights for people with disabilities. Pineda wants to know how the emirate intends to meet its lofty goals. He'll make a six-month trip to Dubai on a Fulbright-Hays fellowship beginning this December, his fourth visit to the Gulf region in as many years.

As a human rights and education activist who leads his own foundation, Pineda seeks to internationalize the study of disability, which has flowered in recent years from within an array of liberal arts disciplines. On the way to a master's degree in city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, he saved up financial aid to get to New York City in order to serve as a U.S. delegate for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), formally adopted this May.

Using tools from fields such as political geography and anthropology, he's found a novel way to attack the issues and to compare the experiences of different countries. It's all about spaces: how we make them, and how they make us.

Take Dubai, where Pineda traveled last October at the invitation of Takamul, the government-sanctioned nongovernmental organization responsible for implementing portions of the 2007 law. Takamul's leaders work themselves to exhaustion, according to Pineda, but the country has no track record on this issue. At the Palm Islands development extending from Dubai's coast, an icon of 21st-century construction, stairs that architects interpolated "for no reason" forced Pineda at one point to abandon his electric-powered wheelchair.

"Space can re-create social barriers that already exist," Pineda observed. He said "disability was definitely an afterthought" in the construction of the Palm Islands.

Getting around by wheelchair gives Pineda a distinct advantage in his studies of how "the built environment can facilitate social inclusion or perpetuate exclusion."

As he puts it, "I don’t seek out the barriers; they seek me out."

He stresses the profound impact of spaces and spatial limitations on all people's identities. For example, the experience of poverty in Los Angeles, a city "created for people who drive cars," is "analogous to the lived experience of people with disabilities."

"If you live in a flat and open space, you have a different type of personality than if you live in ... a forest of buildings."

On his October trip to the Gulf region, Pineda shared a children's book he wrote for UNICEF with a roomful of Yemeni girls and boys who had various physical, sensory, and mental limitations. UNICEF and Pineda's foundation jointly published the book in April of this year, in time for the ratification of the CRPD.

One of the Yemeni girls used crayons to depict herself in her wheelchair, asking the help of a "pretty girl" to get down a flight of stairs. "No, I cannot," she scrawled, "because I don't like to be close to you."

"For me," Pineda said, "it's interesting to be able to be in a place that is undergoing a lot of change and to be able to look at the built environment and think creatively so there won't be so many stairs. And once there aren't so many stairs then that little girl won't be afraid of the unknown."

Pineda's book, "It's About Ability," explains to children what the world is promising them in the CRPD. So far, the book is available in Spanish, French, and English.

Published: Friday, September 05, 2008