Introduction: fundamental rights (Pierce, Williams and Martin, 2016). Therefore,


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,

The definition of a ‘right’:

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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 (, 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
(, 2018).


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,


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” (, 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 (, 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
(, 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 (, 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 (, 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)



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 the oppressed to seize back democratic control of the city and its
urban spaces, in order 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.