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.