Designing Disability

Designing Disability: Symbols, Space, and Society

by Elizabeth Guffey

Elizabeth Guffey is Professor of Art and Design History at State University of New York, Purchase. Her area of specialization is 19th, 20th and 21st century design history. Elizabeth Guffey has authored numerous books and articles on design, and was a founding editor of the leading design journal Design and Culture. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2017
  • DOI:
  • ISBN:
    978-1-3500-0428-3 (hardback)

    978-1-3500-0427-6 (paperback)

    978-1-3500-0425-2 (epdf)

    978-1-3500-0426-9 (epub)

    978-1-3500-0424-5 (online)
  • Edition:
    First edition
  • Place of Publication:
  • Published Online:
Designing Disability
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Designing Disability traces the emergence of an idea and an ideal — physical access for the disabled — through the evolution of the iconic International Symbol of Access (ISA).

The book draws on approaches from design history, material culture and recent critical disability studies to examine not only the development of a design icon, but also the cultural history surrounding it. Infirmity and illness may be seen as part of human experience, but ’disability’ is a social construct, a way of thinking about and constructing responses to human conditions.

Elizabeth Guffey’s highly original and wide-ranging study addresses the period before the ISA, tracing the design history of the wheelchair, a product that spoke to the mobility needs of a growing community of veterans and polio survivors from the 1930s onwards. She examines the rise of ’barrier-free architecture’ in the US, which takes shape around the modern wheelchair, and the consequent need for signage. She analyses the reception of the ISA, with the symbol becoming widely adopted and even a mark of identity, especially for the Disability Rights Movement. But ultimately, a growing debate has unfurled around this symbol; the most vigorous critique today has evolved with guerrilla art, graffiti and studio practice, and above all, it reflects a series of new challenges to design and disability in the twenty-first century.