Taking a Disability Lens: With Elizabeth Guffey

8 min. read
Dr. Elizabeth Guffey is Professor of Art and Design History and head of the MA Program in Art History at the State University of New York, Purchase College. Elizabeth is the author of several books, including Retro: The Culture of Revival, Posters: A Global History, Designing Disability, and, with co-editor Bess Williamson, Making Disability Modern. She is also the founding editor of the peer-reviewed journal Design and Culture.

How did you become interested in the intersection of active transportation and accessible cities? 

I became interested in this topic when the campus where I was teaching was being improved. Without discussion, they replaced the disabled parking spaces with bike racks, cutting off the traffic going into that area. The disabled parking spaces were now at quite a distance from the building. Although they had gone to a great deal of effort to make the interior of the building accessible, the problem that I encountered was access to the building itself.

When I brought it up, there was no broader discussion, because the benefits of putting bike racks in were so-self evident that the question of disabled people and what their experience was like really didn’t come into play. The longer distance and steep hill didn’t register in the conversation, even though I suddenly couldn’t access my office or the classrooms where I was supposed to teach. The elderly or people in wheelchairs now had much difficulty accessing the building, which also houses a public museum.

Alongside this incident, I had increasingly heard the rhetoric that physical activity is always a plus, and significant for us to consider in the design of our cities. It has made me wonder about the privileging of physical activity as a given, without interrogating it at all. I started to further explore the ideology of active transportation, which is nuanced, and holds different approaches. At its most extreme, people can say that any kind of human powered human mobility is good, from privileging manual wheelchairs over powered wheelchairs, to walking and cycling for transportation. What happens however, if someone doesn’t have that energy, or the capacity to walk or cycle? Here we get into more complicated issues of personal independence, and underlying assumptions, and about which human bodies and which mobilities are being accommodated, or excluded. American civil rights law is clear that an even playing field needs to be created for everybody so we can all operate in an equal way. In certain cases, some people have to rely on others to do things for them and that takes away a level of freedom or access, that others take for granted. 

Within critical disabilities studies, how does your research interests intersect with that lived experience of navigating the city? 

It was through that incident that I began to further teach myself about critical disabilities studies. For me, that experience was a motivator. I became more aware of disability justice, and its ideal of “nothing about us without us” which is significant here, as no consultation had happened in the removal of these disabled parking spaces, or the lived experience of disability in the changed configuration of campus.

I use disabilities studies as a framework for my work, and in order to understand how systemic ableism is reproduced and what that does to disabled people. Ableism of course, encompasses the structures that have thwarted disabled people from living, studying and working in the way that other people are able to. There is a sense that often disabled people are in different situations than they were a few hundred years ago. Much has changed, but the struggle continues to this day. The USA in many ways was at the forefront of these changes with many progressive and dynamic laws in the area, yet many problems remain, such as with enforcement or awareness. Usually the problem is that disabled people are not considered in the built environment. Stronger laws are needed to show there are these varieties of different experiences and bodies.

One of the most important things, and this is where my engagement as an academic comes in, is that disability is actually contingent, a state that is constantly changing, depending on different situations. In this interview for example, we are talking virtually, so my mobility disability is invisible to you. I don’t come across as disabled in this format of discussion. If we were in a different context however that would be different. Most people don’t realise that a lot of people have impairments and that we try to accommodate them. So a lot of disabilities depend on the circumstances that you experience it in.

Within urban planning and even in the way we consider how cars and bicycles function, I don’t think we have done a good enough job interrogating what kind of bodies people inhabit these urban spaces, and which of those bodies are worth attention. We have a way of designing the world for a 25 year old man, and there is an expectation that everyone else is supposed to follow suit. It’s been a struggle across the board to exit that mindset. It’s important to start asking who we are designing for, what sort of people we want to belong here, and what kinds of modes of education we are providing and receiving. The question of transport comes in critically here: are we creating worlds that are accessible for disabled people, or the elderly?

A lot of people forget how fully the world around them is designed. When the average person walks down the street, they forget that everything is built and has been planned, from the sidewalks, buses or elevators, all forms of infrastructure. Relating this to the infrastructure for cycling, you would imagine that people who ride bicycles should immediately be very cognisant of what it means to be excluded or excluded because infrastructure does not prioritise that form of transportation in most parts of the world. Generally speaking, if the infrastructure is working well, you don’t notice it, but as soon as there is a problem you do.

How can urban planning and policy be more open and inclusive of the diverse voices and needs of persons with disabilities ?

The idea is to be designing with disabled people and to figure out the mechanisms and processes to do that. Co-design or collaborative design is key. One of the main problems is that this is such an invisible issue for so many able-bodied people, their privileged experience is taken for granted. I think we need to be as flexible as possible, to bring as many stakeholders as possible to the table. I often encourage people with disabilities to not only join the conversation but to also be part of the decision makers and planners. We need to open up education to accommodate this, and these are of course systemic changes that take time.

In terms of the active transportation model, it’s best not to foreclose, forget or discount the multiple experiences that people have when navigating the city. Disability actually brings a new perspective, and one that could help to improve these issues. Taking a disability perspective helps us see the complications that exist within the remaking of the city, and how these kinds of issues have both strengths and dangers to them. The big danger in urban infrastructure redesign is that there still exists this sameness that is assumed. As in design, where we need to design for the users rather than the designer, we need to build our cities for its diverse population and not just to reflect the planner or the advocate. Which humans get to count in our discussions is the key here. Disabilities need to be re-centred in those conversations, in parallel with issues of care, gender, and race.

The idea is to create multiple points of entry to a space, maintaining flexibility. Ensuring the processes and resources to design inclusively are followed and allocated. Bicyclists should understand this. It’s what they face on a daily basis. The oddity for me is that active transportation advocates tend to feel it is such a social good that they get defensive when paradoxes, inconsistencies or lack of inclusivity are brought up.

With universal design there exists something called the curb-cut effect, which argues that when access is provided with curb cuts they thought it would only help wheelchair users but it turns out it hugely helps people with strollers or luggage. So there often is this effect that it benefits multiple people. If you are designing for the extremes, which is a term increasingly used in more recent design ideology, you accommodate the middle. This should be the basis of our understanding when remaking the city.