From the earliest formations of a disability rights movement in the 20th-century West, design played a part, from the demand for greater accessibility to the invention and re-invention of graphic symbols to represent disability in public. There have been fairly few scholarly assessments of design and designers within Disability History and Disability Studies, however. Works include Rob Imrie's geographical studies, Katherine Ott's curatorial work at the National Museum of American History and writings on "disability things," and David Serlin's connections between military-industrial medical history and labor, gender, and disability ("EveryBody," 2014; Hall & Imrie, 2004; Imrie, 1996; Ott, 2014; Serlin, 2004). A recent anthology edited by the architectural historian Jos Boys collected the scope of the field as it exists (Boys, 2017), revealing an interdisciplinary engagement but still much work to do. These two new books cover for the first time in detail the ways in which design became significant to disability discourse in the 20th century. In both cases, the authors situate legal and activist shifts toward inclusive design within longer histories of disability in visual and scientific cultures. Their thorough research and critical framing promise to alter the terms by which we assess access, universal design, and the mis-fits between disabled persons and the designed world.
Of these two books, Hamraie's is the more deeply rooted in discourses of Disability Studies. Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability builds on scholarship that examines the medical and social sciences' construction of disability by adding architecture and design to the list of disciplines that compile knowledge on the body. The book's richly illustrated account of design systems that sought to codify the human body's dimensions echoes histories such as Lennard Davis' Enforcing Normalcy and Tobin Siebers' Disability Aesthetics that track how modern Western science and art created bodily ideals out of statistical norms. From Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man to modernist design standards by Le Corbusier and Henry Dreyfuss, Hamraie writes, representations of the human body created a "normate template" that was as much a prescription for how a body should be as how a body was. These modern templates left disabled bodies out of the picture, but Hamraie demonstrates that even when designers embraced the notion of a "flexible" user in the mid-20th century, their goals were often more about assimilating different kinds of bodies into capitalist machinery than challenging any notion of the norm.
As the book moves to its main focus on the work to create "universal" and accessible design, Hamraie maintains attention to the ways in which seemingly inclusive practices often reinforced the preeminence of the normate body. Universal design, a term coined in the 1980s to describe design that is "usable by all people to the greatest extent possible," followed earlier arguments in which design authorities argued for the benefits of accessible design "for all." In a compelling turn of intersectional analysis, Hamraie links these claims to universalizing statements of citizenship of the civil rights era, when "all" and "everyone" were words used to make African American and other marginalized populations legible to white audiences. These seemingly inclusive terms defined citizenship through what white people already had: dominion over public and private space. Hamraie highlights the unmarked "neutral" spaces in which researchers developed accessible design, including private homes and universities—two of the most segregated spaces in the post-World War II U.S. Throughout the 20th century, "design for all" often meant design for white Americans.
Building Access is about design as a form of knowledge—both in the processes of research and planning and in the artifacts that we see and use. Alterations to curbs and door handles represent not only functional changes, but "epistemic activism," or a fundamental change to knowledge about what one designs, and for whom. This epistemic challenge is also mirrored in Hamraie's own text, as they track the forms of knowledge developed outside of expert-driven institutions, in communities and everyday lives. In tracking how, for example, disabled residents of Berkeley, California, redesigned curbs and ramps in the 1970s based on their own observations, Hamraie names the productive force of "crip technoscience," knowledge-from-below that gained value in the era of legal requirements for access. The book includes a number of sub-narratives of figures who translated their own disability experiences into professional work, particularly the story of Ronald L. Mace, the disabled architect who coined the term universal design and was one of the foremost authors of federal accessibility codes throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Hamraie is the first scholar to write significantly on Mace, drawing on personal papers, notes – even a telephone message left for Mace by the architect I.M. Pei—as well as Mace's state and federal code drawings. But rather than simply offering a biography, the book situates Mace's life within the broader history of knowledge-making about disability and space. Mace, Hamraie asserts, was himself embedded in a society of spatial segregation, from his childhood treatment in a polio hospital that later became a site of civil rights-era incarceration, to his thesis work observing public housing in the 1960s South. Hamraie is unsentimental about Mace's white privilege while also noting that Mace formulated universal design alongside like-minded planners who recognized dimensions of inequality on the basis of race and income. In later years, especially after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, others often promoted universal design in ways that once again homogenized the vision of "design for all" as if all people have the same access to space.
At times, Hamraie's layering of neologisms can be overwhelming (although not inaccessibly written), and there are some assumptions here of an unnamed public who perceive access as an easy or "frictionless" solution. In asserting that access was more challenging to build than it is sometimes portrayed, Hamraie neglects to mention that this very difficulty has often been an excuse for businesses and policymakers to resist access regulations. Nonetheless, the book offers many useful concepts for future study of disability design, and for a broader field of design studies interrogating the methods by which designers come to know their users.
Intertwining networks of design knowledge are also a strong presence in Elizabeth Guffey's Designing Disability: Symbols, Space, and Society, which takes the International Symbol for Access (the iconic "stick figure in a wheelchair") as a starting-point for exploring the politics of representing disability in public. Hamraie and Guffey share some topics, such as the work of Timothy Nugent, the University of Illinois administrator who oversaw the establishment of the first wheelchair-accessible college campus in Urbana-Champaign in the 1950s. The underlying questions of these books are quite different, however. Guffey, an art historian who has written books about the history of posters and retro style, brings attention to the significance of visibility in public – first, of visibility of any kind, and second, of the specific iconology of the wheelchair as the dominant visual representation of disability in contemporary society.
In an opening section, Guffey explores the history of the wheelchair itself as a public symbol emerging in the 18th and 19th centuries: part medical device, part personal accessory, the wheelchair was acceptable in some sites, such as for privileged visitors to the World's Fairs or therapeutic bathers in Bath, England, but not expected as an item of everyday mobility on the uneven terrain of modern city. Guffey identifies the modernized wheelchair – the chrome, foldable chair developed in the 1940s to be able to fit into an automobile—as a kind of precursor to the International Symbol for Access because it redesigned the wheelchair as a device meant to be used in public. The historical narrative of Designing Disability suggests a set of interlocking realities in which the wheelchair's function depended on the built environment, which in turn was constructed around social values of ability and movement. Throughout, Guffey's attention to popular sources significantly supplements prior histories of the wheelchair that focus primarily on technological changes.
Designing Disability describes the move toward the now-ubiquitous symbol as far from inevitable, as it was the product of transnational influence between the U.S. and Europe and back again. The book offers an important corrective to disability histories that focus on the U.S. alone as Guffey shows that the ISA reflected a distinctively European way of thinking about disability identity. Selwyn Goldsmith, a British architect and wheelchair user, was initially thrilled by Tim Nugent's work on access in the U.S., but soon questioned the focus on young, able-bodied college students as a primary user group. Focusing on aging and isolated disabled residents in England, Goldsmith pursued a unifying graphic symbol as a way of bringing disability into public light. Guffey brings a sharp design historian's eye to analyzing various competing designs, such as a variety of proposals that Goldsmith developed with figures of people using wheelchairs or walking with canes, as well as more abstract symbols used in international events such as the Expo 67 World's Fair in Montreal.
In the end, the ISA was not of Goldsmith's design, but was designed by a Danish student in a social design workshop in Sweden, influenced by the American design activist Victor Papanek. Guffey carefully documents how the original design, a clear and angular outline of a wheelchair, was altered by a rehabilitation administrator to add a spherical head. While the urge to humanize the wheelchair symbol is understandable, this reformulated symbol horrified design commentators of the time, and produced a confusing human-device hybrid that clashed with many of the common symbol systems of the time. Once adopted, the symbol underwent additional changes in meaning: quickly adopted in the U.S. to mark legally-required forms of access, it often represented the shortfalls of these laws as much as their successes. A new generation of activists observed the sharp irony of a standardized symbol applied to the doors of buses that lacked wheelchair lifts or to broken and blocked elevators. Guffey details the work of young designers and activists to develop alternative versions in recent years, such as the Accessible Icon, a more "active" redesign of the ISA that began its life as a vinyl sticker illicitly placed over street signs.
Throughout the book, Guffey skillfully situates the various icons that were proposed to symbolize disability access within other iconographic histories, from the Modernist "isotype" statistical data system developed by Otto Neurath in 1930s Austria to the guerrilla street art works that share a spirit with the Accessible Icon project. These detailed connections make the book a valuable read for designers and design historians as well, especially as it details the many hands through which these symbols passed before becoming familiar icons. The detail on the work of individuals, however, sometimes outweighs a sense of the broader picture in terms of disability law and politics. Guffey uses the terms "disabled access movement," "barrier-free access movement," and "Universal Design movement," but there is little sense of the outlines of these "movements" or their interaction with the disability rights movements of the U.S. or Europe. As a result, Designing Disability sometimes appears to fall back on the conventions of design and art history that give the most agency to creative authors.
What is most striking about reading these books together is not their overlaps in material, but their divergences. Hamraie, keeping their focus on the U.S., delves more into the disability rights movement and legal developments, while Guffey largely tracks the work of individual designers and the circulation of images. Neither book contradicts the other's account, but instead, together they reveal that accessible design was developed in multiple arenas at the same time. These books give us at least two family trees of access, with "crip technoscience" providing a voice from below and government and design authorities introducing top-down codes and standards, often informed by disabled professionals such as Ron Mace and Selwyn Goldsmith. Hamraie tracks some of the interconnections among a community of activists and designers, but it is clear that often, these individuals worked alone, improving their own circumstances before making connections at conferences or in activist groups. While these two works make significant contributions to understanding the development of access in the U.S. and Europe, there is still a lack of literature tracking forms of design we might call "accessible" in other parts of the world, under different knowledge systems.
These books will do much to bring design forward as a site of expertise and power, both for Disability Studies scholars and readers in fields of Design Studies, Art and Architectural History, or Science and Technology Studies. Perhaps the operations of professional designers and the amateurs who tinker and adapt their work have remained under the radar of Disability Studies because they appear to be neutral. The "built environment" is a passive construction that seems to give no agency to individuals or institutions, while "design" can be a noun, verb, or adjective to produce meanings so broad as to evade specificity. But as these books reveal, design has been a crucial means through which societies know, see, or depict disability. Moreover, the public nature of design makes its products a part of the social world that defines disability. These two books help us see who, why, and when these fields took up new ideas about disability, and the significant impact that disabled participants made in this work.
- Boys, J. (Ed.). (2017). Disability, Space, Architecture: A Reader. New York: Routledge.
- EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America. (2014) [Curated by Katherine Ott]. Retrieved from http://everybody.si.edu.
- Hall, P., & Imrie, R. (2004). Inclusive Design: Designing and Developing Accessible Environments. Taylor & Francis.
- Imrie, R. (1996). Disability and the City: International Perspectives. New York: St. Martin's Press.
- Ott, K. (2014). Disability Things: Material Culture and American Disability History, 1700-2010. In S. Burch & M. Rembis (Eds.), Disability Histories (pp. 119–135). University of Illinois Press.
- Serlin, D. H. (2004). Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.