Image credit: The Architecture of Disability: Buildings, Cities, and Landscapes beyond Access by David Gissen (University of Minnesota Press, 2022).

In 1989, Mark Wellman became the first paraplegic to scale the face of El Capitan, the massive granite cliff of rock overlooking Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park. The climb took eight days and was reported closely in the news media because of Wellman’s own history as an expert climber and Yosemite park ranger. Wellman, who became paralyzed in a 1982 fall while climbing a rock face in the John Muir Wilderness in California, was hailed for his accomplishment relative to his own disability. Since 1989, several additional disabled mountain climbers and athletes have climbed El Capitan; they have included paraplegics, amputees, and participants in an “all disabled climb.” The climbers themselves and many of the journalists who cover them see these climbs as victories for disability empowerment and disability rights. For others, such feats represent a kind of performativity by disabled people (derogatorily labeled “supercrips” by some disabled people) that ultimately works against disability rights by shifting the focus away from the general inaccessibility of places such as national parks. The criticism works in the following manner: If disabled people can individually overcome the barriers of a space, especially a cliff face(!), then the problems of access fall on the bodies and minds of disabled people with various impairments. While I am sympathetic to this argument, I would like to introduce another critique into this discussion that points to the facile nature of the politics of accessibility within Yosemite and other parks like it. This latter critique takes a closer look into the particular place where these athletic feats and access demands are staged. 

The site of Wellman’s climb is famous in American history, and thus meaningful in ways beyond its simply posing an enormous physical challenge for him. This rock face in the center of Yosemite Valley overlooks a landscape central to the concept of “wilderness” in the United States. Visualized in iconic manner in American painting, photography, and literature, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, and Half Dome are an iconography of the American understanding of nature. In many ways the ascents of El Capitan reinforce a series of ideas or dualisms regarding the relationship between impairment and nature, American history, and the inherent physical violence of wilderness. Nevertheless, as numerous historians of both architecture and nature point out, the wilderness of the national park called Yosemite is a constructed space that replaced earlier evidence of its constructed nature. To understand this, consider the representations of this place from before its life as a national park, which are different from those seen in the twentieth century. While most Americans might know this space through the images of the U.S. photographer Ansel Adams or the writing of the U.S. naturalist John Muir, images of Yosemite held in the collection of the Library of Congress document the agricultural practices of the land’s pre-European inhabitants. In these photographs, Yosemite appears more like a farm than a national park. One photograph shows three piles of tree limbs lying on closely cropped grass in front of a small, manicured woods. The trees in the background are being harvested for their nuts and lumber. In the photograph the ground appears very different from how most Americans today imagine Yosemite. There are no winding paths, and though the background of the photograph shows massive granite cliffs, they do not appear as a rocky and forbidding landscape. All the elements of nature within the photographer’s immediate surroundings appear to have been worked, in one manner or another. In this photograph Yosemite looks more like a working landscape than an American idea of wilderness. This is a representation of Yosemite that captures aspects of its precolonial character—created by those who lived there thousands of years before European settlers arrived.

Yosemite was developed to take on its particular appearance as rugged wilderness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As architectural historians Christine Macy and Sarah Bonnemaison write, this and other contemporaneous national parks, such as Yellowstone, should be understood as gigantic territorial projects in physical relocation, management and regulation, infrastructural development, and architectural design. The introduction of numerous trails, roadways, water systems, and rustic architecture, in tandem with the elimination of agricultural forest usage, pasture animals, and year-round inhabitation, lent these landscapes a particularly rugged and naturalized appearance.  As these authors point out, the architects of the structures and other built features appearing throughout the parks turned to ideas inherited from European theories that advanced nature as the ideal setting, model, and resource for architectural works. The aesthetics of the rustic lodge, a building type seen in numerous U.S. parks, often reference an older European architectural patrimony, with a temple-like character and evocations of classical columns, but made from tree trunks. Nature occupies a highly ambiguous role in these constructions: it is aesthetic inspiration, a potentially threatening nonhuman force, and an abundant source of material riches.  Critically, as architectural historian Anthony Vidler has observed, the early modern theories of architecture and nature that inspired the lodges and cabins of American parks emerged during a period of French and British colonization in the Americas. The transformation of American territories into the setting, model, and resources for settlement was renaturalized into a general theory for thinking about space more generally. 

To return to the subject of this chapter, and the larger book: an examination of a mixture of postnatural theory and postcolonial history reveals that there is nothing inherently inaccessible about Yosemite, because there is little about Yosemite that is natural—as that term has come to be understood, meaning beyond human fabrication and construction, and fundamentally at odds with human inhabitation. What I would also like to suggest is that once this history becomes more sensible, rather than simply agitating to access such spaces, or using them as props in athletic feats that overcome their physical features, disability activists might gain an opportunity to stage a richer politics in these landscapes. Here nature in the American continents would become untangled from its association with a hostile, inaccessible, nonhuman, and pristine character. What is the meaning of a disability politics that seeks to improve the accessibility of Yosemite? Here or in any other physically constructed spaces, one can rethink demands for “access” by beginning to question whether the inaccessible qualities of those spaces are inherent attributes of them. As discussed in chapter 1, any project of access has the capacity to reveal the generally artificial character of sites that appear to have innate qualities, and disability activism (as outlined in this book) has the capacity to uncover and foster a deeper and more complex history beyond the problems of access to space itself.

In this particular case, as the history of wilderness becomes more known, the desire for increased disability access to it, stated in a general manner, loses its meaning as a liberatory way to rethink the rights of human beings within this and similar landscapes. Americans’ demand to have unlimited access through a space like Yosemite—in its guise as a national monument to American wilderness—loses a critical political dimension. Similarly, if increasing access to Yosemite requires a sensitivity to balancing a larger human presence with the space’s inherently natural character, this simply further fetishizes the whole idea of nature in the Americas as nonhuman space. In contrast to efforts to simply increase the usability of U.S. wilderness, a more critical politics reveals the inherently artificial character of those landscapes and the manner in which any improvements in “access” might further expose and reconstitute their history. There is an opportunity here to rethink the politics of access as something other than a literal effort to bring more visitors into America’s wilderness areas. Challenging the physical inaccessibility of national parks might be reimagined as an opportunity to demonstrate the artifice of American nature more broadly. If disability rights are ultimately human rights, then the ideas presented here suggest new, unimagined alliances. In this context, such alliances reimagine disability rights in ways that emerge in response to and from the politics of displacement and restitution in the Americas.

Excerpted from The Architecture of Disability: Buildings, Cities, and Landscapes beyond Access by David Gissen. Published by the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2022 by David Gissen. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Read David Gissen’s conversation with Bella Okuya about the research and politics of The Architecture of Disability.

David Gissen is professor of architecture and urban history at Parsons School of Design at the New School.