The International Symbol of Access as Speculative Design

January 14, 5:30 PM
Visual Arts Presentation Lab, SME 149

The International Symbol of Access (the “wheelchair symbol”) is a design so ubiquitous, few people notice or question it today. But now, some thirty years after its introduction, the universal access symbol, better known as the “handicapped symbol,” is likely on the skids. Taxonomically speaking, the familiar blue pictogram of an abstracted person sitting in a wheelchair functions as the International Symbol of Access (ISA). Practically, the “wheelchair symbol” is an international success, functioning world-over by identifying accommodations for the disabled, like automated doors, restrooms and parking spots. It is arguably the most common communicative symbol in existence. And yet, in the disability community, the symbol is broadly emerging as inadequate; it does not represent disabled persons, their needs, or identity. This talk addresses the problem, and also evaluates the successful critique of the ISA recently mounted within the framework of critical design. Drawing from a growing body of critical design theory (foremost among them being the writings of the Viennese collective Wochenklausur), these revisions challenge our ideas, not only of disability but also the function of design today.


Elizabeth Guffey teaches and writes on art and design history, theory and criticism.  She is the Juanita and Joseph Leff Distinguished Professor at Purchase College, State University of New York. She is founding Editor of Design and Culture(, the peer-review journal of the Design Studies Forum.  She is also the author of Retro: The Culture of Revival and Posters: A Global History.