[en] In her pathbreaking book Designing Disability: Symbols, Space and Society, Elizabeth Guffey provides vital insights into decades of social and design processes that ultimately produced the most ubiquitous symbol of disability—and accessibility—worldwide: The International Symbol of Access (ISA). Building on existing scholarship from a range of disciplines coupled with original historical research, this book uncovers the origins and evolving (largely transatlantic) architectural and design discourse, and several moments of serendipity, that led to its creation. The ISA has since diffused to become part of the built environment in all corners of the world. Richly illustrated and charting at times vitriolic debates, protest activities, and artistic interventions up to the contemporary era, Guffey weaves together activist and aesthetic perspectives into a tapestry of social and design history relating to disability and accessibility.
Structured in historical phases, the book’s chapters progress across larger and shorter stretches over more than a century of wheelchair design, social and welfare policies and programs (mostly in the US, UK, and Scandinavia), architectural standards, and symbols relating to barriers and accessibility measures. Guffey engages the reader in what is necessarily a multidisciplinary, multilevel investigation, with unexpected twists and turns.
On one level, the book focuses on the politics of highest office, with US Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower (who permanently or temporarily used wheelchairs) sketched against the backdrop of the lack of accessible government buildings in Washington, DC, and the social consensus then to hide impairment for fear of stigmatization (shifted marginally by disabled Veterans). On another level, welfare state provisions in the US, UK, and Scandinavia are discussed in light of progressive legislation and the persistent challenges of implementation. Finally, at ground level, the utmost significance of individuals devoted to universal design writ large becomes manifestly evident. Guffey recounts how, in US universities, inspirational figures such as Timothy Nugent (at Illinois), Ron Mace (at North Carolina State), and Viktor Papanek (at Purdue, CalArts, Kansas, etc.), campus planners, and students designed and constructed new worlds on the drawing board and poured in concrete. We follow design professionals, such as architect Selwyn Goldsmith in the UK, who was a strident arbiter of accessibility. Academic initiatives went hand-in-fist with advocacy activities in organizations and protest and artistic actions in the streets. Indeed, to raise general awareness of the ever-present attitudinal and structural barriers—institutionalized discrimination—that disabled people face daily and to secure disability rights, disability protests and cross-national organizing have repeatedly been necessary. The long and bumpy road to universal design extends into the future.
Integral to this history of design development, revision, and critiques of various symbols of disability have been international events (world expositions, Olympics & Paralympics) and organizations (Rehabilitation International), artistic inspiration, design competitions, and guerilla art interventions. Tracing the convoluted process of designing what would become the ISA—fifty years ago now—leads to Susanne Koefoed, a Danish design student, and Karl Montan, leader of the Swedish Institute for the Handicapped, but also to international negotiations and chance. The on-going questioning of the official ISA, especially, its “misfit” nature as an amalgam of technical aid and person, emphasizes the shift from invisibility to ubiquity of disability via social change and political activism as well as cultural representations and the need for signs of identity. In the new century, newer initiatives in the US, such as Brendan Murphy’s and the Accessible Icon Project (developed by Sara Hendren and Brian Glenney), have challenged the official ISA, revealing both persistence and change in understandings of disability and accessibility.
When integrated into signage, the ISA designates accessible spaces and facilities. If the ISA has become present in public buildings and spaces everywhere, cultural notions of disability and access remain understudied across the social sciences, with especially the Global South remaining a blank page. Research is needed to chart the diverse local interpretations that mirror shifts from exclusion to inclusion of disabled people as the human rights revolution witnessed since the end of WWII continues, but also suffers backlash, even in the Global North. Paradoxically, this global icon refers simultaneously to disability, and its ameliorating factor, accessibility. Yet, the ambivalence and debate surrounding the ISA persist, as Guffey emphasizes especially in the later chapters, focusing on proposed alternatives to the existing ISA, codified as it is in law and conforming to the guidelines of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
Until universal design (and the universalizing social policies likely needed to support it) succeeds in reducing the barriers in environments and in attitudes and in maximizing the usefulness of products and services during the design stage, identity formation processes are among the most positive aspects of the ISA. The icon’s influence and implementation extend far beyond marking modifications to the built environment. Whether taken-for-granted, modified or critiqued, the current ISA has spread globally. It can now be found wherever people move in physical space, finding their way. The symbol testifies to the on-going shift from exclusion, along a slow and winding road, to social inclusion and full participation of disabled people.
In sum, Guffey brings scholarship on the ISA to the next stage. It complements studies that chart the influence of disabled peoples’ organizations and of international organizations as they facilitated remarkable shifts in disability paradigms. Yet institutionalized discrimination abounds, with the ISA marking that accessibility and universal design are far from achieved. If a few imprecisions tarnish the literature list, this historical work reconstructing a largely Western process cannot be faulted for not providing a complete global analysis of ISA implementation and adjustment. In that vein, with contributions from Guffey herself, the current exhibition “Viktor Papanek: The Politics of Design” (Kries, Klein & Clarke, 2018) indeed extends the discussion to the Global South and across further disciplines, rightfully embedding the dialogue about symbols of disability and enhancing access within broader contexts.
Footnote: Kries, Matteo, Amelie Klein & Alison J. Clarke (eds.) (2018). Viktor Papanek: The Politics of Design. Weil am Rhein, Germany: Vitra Design Museum. ISBN: 978-3-945852-26-2. The exhibition is currently on view at Germany’s Vitra Design Museum (20 September 2018–10 March 2019), then at Barcelona Design Museum (20 October 2019–2 February 2020).