In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Making Disability Modern: Design Histories ed. by Bess Williamson and Elizabeth Guffey
  • Gozde Goncu-Berk (bio)
Making Disability Modern: Design Histories Edited by Bess Williamson and Elizabeth Guffey. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020. Pp. 250.

Making Disability Modern, edited by Bess Williamson and Elizabeth Guffey, walks us through the history of how definitions of disability moved from physical and cognitive limitations of bodies—to be treated and eliminated with medical interventions or "fixed" through top-down design by the "abled"—to the broader societal concept where the effects of disability can be minimized or amplified by design. Different from Williamson's previous Accessible America (NYU Press, 2019), the edited book brings together international scholars providing a global perspective on how different bodies are perceived and treated by design. While the book mostly covers the Western history through real-world cases focused on a certain disease or disability, designed object, or environment in a specific geography, chapters discussing colonialism and disability and one chapter dedicated to Japan add much-needed diversity to the existing scholarship.

The book is organized into three distinctive parts representing paradigm shifts in design from crafts, to industrialization, to the digital era. The first part of the book represents the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries' craft-based, custom-made products such as canes, in addition to rather interesting analyses on the shift to industrialization as a source of disability as well as the influence of cultural imperialism on indigenous traditions and perspectives of disability. "Technologies for the Deaf in British India" examines Western designs imported to cure deafness in India as acts of "philanthropic and scientific beneficence of the colonial state" together with the indigenous sign language systems that had been in existence in this highly linguistically diverse region, regardless of hearing disability, long before Western interventions.

Apart from the better-known histories of disability and design in twentieth [End Page 241] and early twenty-first centuries—such as government involvements in design and the evolution of the discourses of accessible design, universality, and inclusiveness—the second part of the book also takes on a more novel and critical stance on the role of design in segregating disabled and able bodies: specialized design features that mark differences in physical and cognitive abilities versus design that includes and accommodates people with disabilities and those without equally. The final chapter, "Designing the Japanese Walking Bag," is specifically very interesting from multiple perspectives as a rare example of design stemming outside Western culture. First, the chapter discusses the social marginalization of people with disabilities and the stigma associated with disability that is deeply embedded in traditional Japanese culture. Second, it illustrates an example of a product innovation as a result of the personal experiences of its designer, Etsuo Miyoshi, a polio survivor, as opposed to top-down approaches of design. Third, the chapter includes the personal reflections of the author, Elizabeth Guffey, about using the Swany Bag, which functions like a rolling support structure with a detachable bag that resembles a travel carry-on suitcase.

The third part of the book, "Making Disability Digital," is dedicated to the emerging technologies of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, challenging "who is really being served?" The chapter on personal emergency response systems as early examples of wearable technology showcases how design for disability can lead to mainstream innovations—but at the same time encourage surveillance by design. The chapter on 3D printing prosthesis points out the dichotomy between the potential of digital technologies in including disabled people themselves as makers and users versus using disabled bodies as test subjects for future technologies and design.

Making Disability Modern makes a good reader that maps out the areas of tension, new discourse, and discussion points about design and disability from practical, social, cultural, and technological perspectives. The book would also make a good complementary text for senior level undergraduate or graduate classes covering design history, inclusive design, or design for health and wellbeing issues. As emphasized throughout the book, the interaction between design, ability, and disability has been deeply embedded in complex and larger contexts. It is uncertain how the history of disability and design will continue to unfold in the twenty...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 241-243
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.