Access symbol: inclusive or exclusive?

International symbol for access. Blue background with white graphic.Confusion still reigns about the international symbol of access (ISA). Is it exclusively for wheelchair users? Or does it denote access for everyone? The ISA was originally created to denote physical spaces for wheelchair accessibility. But its meaning has evolved into something much more complex. 

A study with participants who were a mix of people with and without disability revealed some interesting findings. However, A set of six symbols denoting walking can, signing, Braille, hearing loop, and audio description.some participants who did not identify as having a disability described themselves as having some form of impairment. This illustrates ideological differences about disability per se, and highlights how society uses labels and symbols to define a group or culture in wider society. 

The article has lots of statistical results. The discussion and conclusions are worth a read because of the implications across society. It includes a look at all the symbols currently in use to signify different disabilities. Some participants wanted to see characteristics of themselves in symbols, but this creates uncertainty with other groups. As an aside, the use of the word “handicap” showed up in participant responses, indicating it is still in common usage.

The title of the article is Effectiveness of the International Symbol of Access and inclusivity of other disability groups.

The article concludes, “Perhaps a more effective solution would be standards which incorporate universal design, thereby ensuring equitable and intuitive use of products A blue background with three icons. One shows a woman pushing a pram, the next a woman with a dog, the third, a wheelchair user. The icons are in whiteand spaces and eliminating the need to symbolically represent population-based accessibility. Initiatives such as Design for All (DfA) in Europe, which was adopted in the EIDD Stockholm Declaration of 2004, and the Barrier-Free Accessibility (BFA) program in Singapore, promote a social model of disability by encouraging barrier-free design of products, services, and environments for people of all abilities and under varying socioeconomic situations.”


Symbol for disability or for access?

four white figures on a blue background showing a man and woman with a square head and a man and a woman with a misshapen head“Does the international symbol for disability need to be rethought”? is the title of an article in the FastCompany blog. First question this raises is, “Is it a symbol for disability or a symbol for access?”  Actually, it is a symbol for access, not disability.. The article proposes a variety of symbols for different disabilities. But do we need more symbols and if so, what purpose would they serve? 

Some people might like to have a symbol they can relate to if they are not a wheelchair user. But could another symbol further stigmatise? For example one of the proposed symbols shows a person with half the head missing. Another shows a square head. Currently the universal and international symbol for access is more about buildings meeting legislative compliance than trying to send a message about different disabilities. The aim of universal design is to not need more symbols and labels, but to need them less. Have a look at the article and see what you think about the proposition of a multitude of symbols.

Editor’s note: During my Churchill Fellowship in 2004, I visited Rehabilitation International (now RIA Global) which ran the competition in 1969 for the international design. They agree that over time this symbol is not the best representation, but difficult to change now. It is the most recognised and understood symbol in the world.