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Does the air of the city really grant freedom?

Does the air of the city really grant freedom?   

Disability is the first cause of discrimination in France. More precisely through space and public services¹. Until now, disability was essentially considered to fall within the medical-social field, but the human part and the interactions between the various actors and their subjective experiences clearly demonstrate the interest that sociology takes in it today. In the context of my two years’ memory survey, this is the subject I chose to study. What are the experiences of disabled people using wheelchairs regarding the accessibility of public places?


The city, a common good?


In sociology, the concept of mobility is often associated with social mobility. It is therefore a consequence of the right to participate in society, based on the principles of equal opportunity and merit, with the idea that everyone can emerge from a process of social reproduction as conceived by Pierre Bourdieu (Les Héritiers, 1964). We will focus more on the term of “accessibility”. Its objective is to enable people with disabilities to live in an ordinary way. It includes different fields of social life: access to employment, health, cultural development, the right to vote, education, and particularly, the freedom of movement in public spaces. 


More than the idea of moving, we can also take interest in the way these people are welcomed. Indeed, public spaces maybe need to be organized, adapted. Accessibility cannot be limited to the simple “right to the city”, theorized by Henri Lefebvre (Le droit à la ville, 1967), who defines it as a constitutive element of democracy where the city is a common good that must be open to all. Accessibility is also the interaction between services (both human and material) and users.


Disability in the city: social representation, stigma and discrimination


What counts when we take interest in disability are the social representations of disabled people, more than laws or actions taken in a certain direction. This idea was developed through a concept defined by Erving Goffman²: the stigma. Taken from the Greek, stigma was initially used to designate the body marks (scars, red-hot iron marks) of traitors, slaves and criminals. Simply put, it designated people to be avoided, especially in public places. Since then, people with disabilities are stigmatized by recurrent prejudices (slowness, illness, simple-mindedness...).


The individuals who make up a city wear different hats: they are at the same time inhabitants, users and citizens of the city, while having very different personalities. These individuals cohabit on a shared space, but this can be difficult. Indeed, according to Mathilde Mus³, coexistence between individuals is not innate. A shared space suggests codes and rules, established by society and which will form a more or less homogeneous "norm". Failure to comply with this standard, which is mostly shared, creates a lot of problems, particularly regarding integration, for part of the population. Thus, we can question difference in a broad sense, as being excluded from urban spatial dynamics.


Three different spatial logics exist in the city: grouping, "voluntary" exclusion or "imposed" exclusion. Spatial organization can evolve over time. Until very recently (around 1975), we attended a situation of confinement of populations qualified as "deficient". From now on, their care is institutionalized. Nevertheless, collective and individual struggles persist today, seeking to achieve a situation of social recognition.


Here we see that two realities confront each other in the urban environment, which are at the very heart of my research subject: the body (the inhabitants, citizens, users of the city, in my dissertation paper the "able-bodied" and the "disabled") and the urban décor (structures, buildings, roads, etc.). While the city is essentially a source of gatherings through common cultural, ethnic, religious or social affiliations, what place does difference have?

According to the little Robert (2003), difference is a character that distinguishes something from something else. According to Mathilde Mus, difference does not exist in itself; it is a comparison tool. She quotes Françoise Héritier, a famous anthropologist, explaining that it is a "fundamental cognitive process" which aims at "categorization establishing, in the state of the known world, an order based on the opposition between the identical and the different, whose variations are declined according to essentially cultural codes". If we apply this theory to our case study, it means that individuals classify the elements of their world (their group) in order to place themselves in relation to others (the alter). Concretely, this difference can materialize in various forms: conflicts, tensions, stigmatization, categorization but also positive discrimination.


Accessibility, an urban challenge


In her thesis, Mathilde Mus demonstrates that disabled people are very poorly represented in city statistics. Indeed, this public is invisible. This categorization is therefore part of a political, social and ethical construction. It is visible through the compensatory pensions or the rehabilitation systems which, according to the author, have led an "individual pathology" to become a "social pathology". This statement contrasts with that of the authors of Introduction à la sociologie du handicap, Histoire, politiques et expériences⁴, who explain on the contrary that we have moved towards too much personalization of disability management and that the risk of making it on a case-by-case basis is to undermine a policy of generalized accessibility. We then see an important and debatable point concerning disability: should it be seen as a whole in order to potentially facilitate its social representation, or should a case-by-case approach be taken (that would probably be more costly).

In short, as we have seen, the way in which urban space is conceived today, as it has been for many years, therefore refers to the coexistence of individuals. Through conflicts, tensions and segregations that occur in reality via political and social choices, it is easy to observe the complexity of knowing how to live together but above all, how to tolerate and accept difference. For the author, even though the city is the place of senses and skills, not everyone benefits equally from its resources. Thus, living together while integrating all individuals seems to be the urban challenge of tomorrow. Distance or, on the contrary, proximity, are not innate but are the result of political, social and spatial choices (relating to the capacity of a space to apprehend difference).

Since the law of February 2005 that imposes on all public structures to comply with standards in terms of accessibility, we could imagine that we have moved towards an improvement in the daily life of this population. In reality, we are still very far from this goal. Indeed, approximately 15% of the French population is currently disabled. By 2050, due in part to the ageing of the population, the proportion of French people in a situation of dependency will be 25%, i.e. a quarter of the population. We must keep in mind that a disability can affect anyone at any time in their life. So maybe it is time to really look at this, isn’t it?

Julie Cama


¹Défenseur des Droits, Rapport annuel d’activité, 2018;

²E.Goffman, Stigmate, les usages sociaux des handicaps, 1975, Ed. De Minuit, Collection Le Sens commun;

³M. Mus, Populations déficientes, territoires en mutation : de nouvelles dynamiques spatiales ?, 2010, Université Le Havre;

⁴E . Fillion, I. Ville et J.F. Ravaud, Introduction à la sociologie du handicap Histoire, politiques et expérience, 2014, Ed. De Boeck, Louvain-la-Neuve;


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