Main content

Micro-Interview: Elizabeth Guffey

Q&A with Elizabeth Guffey, professor of art history and director of the MA program in Modern and Contemporary Art, whose new book Designing Disability is coming out this December.

How did you come to write Designing Disability? When did you first become interested in the subject?

Even though I identify as a disabled person with a mobility disorder, I only recently started thinking about access when I saw the replacement to the International Symbol of Access (ISA) that is the AIP (Accessible Icon Project) – the newer symbol that echoes the rise of a disruptive participatory disability culture. The new icon presents a wheelchair user in a more active role, pushing themselves further, and has now become the standard handicap symbol for both New York and Connecticut.

What did you discover that was most surprising to you?

First off, I didn’t realize how ubiquitous the ISA is, it being one of the top three or four symbols in the world. But it also has a very odd past – it is a symbol created by a committee of people. Basically, it was meant to be a representation of a wheelchair, but someone put a circle on top of it to look more human, and with the circle on top it became a person in a wheelchair.

What are some of the most pressing issues in the book, the big takeaways?

It’s a symbol profoundly familiar to all of us, it’s everywhere, but I don’t think people think much about it and what it represents. It in some ways completely changes the space that all of us live in today. As ubiquitous as it is, it’s widely misunderstood and often abused ­– just because the symbol is there does not mean that the access is truly there.

What’s next? Any upcoming book projects in the works that you can tell us about?

I’m looking to continue studying design, access, and disability more broadly. It’s a subject that needs a lot of work and more attention.

For more information, please visit: