Disabled icon

When anybody mentions the disabled icon, we all conjure up the recognisable white and blue symbol.

Officially known as the International Symbol of Access (ISA), it was designed back in 1986 by a Danish design student called Susanne Koefoed. While the ISA often denotes areas of improved access, specifically for wheelchairs and mobility scooters, it has come to encompass a whole lot more.

There have been recent debates about invisible disabilities and bathroom signage not encompassing everyone who needs to use such facilities. Many household names, from supermarkets to football clubs, have attempted to alter perceptions through their signage, as reported by the BBC. As the feedback for invisible disabilities signs have been positive, it calls into question the original symbol and whether it is still relevant.

The Accessible Icon Project feel the International Symbol of Access is too static. What started as a talking point soon developed into a street art campaign when Sara Handren and Brian Glenney looked to stir discussions by placing decals over the existing symbols around the city of Boston USA. By being able to see both the old and the new symbol, it brought the differences into sharp contrast. According to Sara: “The difference between two icons like these was so striking to me that I couldn’t believe the second one (and others that are closely similar) wasn’t used more commonly.”

Who is on board?

New disabled icon

The states of Connecticut and New York have officially taken up the new accessible icon, with the Connecticut governor speaking positively on the change. “It’s 45 years old,” said Dannel Malloy about the previous symbol. “It was developed at a different time, when our own ideas as a culture and a society were much more about concentrating on that which held people back, as opposed to that which moves people forward, and so it was time.”

With people as far as New Delhi, India both seeing and using the symbol, the new design has had a wide audience. Speaking to Lauren Kelly, who works for Dura design and has an intimate knowledge of the power of symbolism was in favour of the change:

“Wrongly, the general opinion of the disabled community is one of loss. Either in their personal abilities or freedom of access. However, if you talk to any disabled person you quickly find this opinion is wrong. They embody resilience, ability and strength.

“The current International Symbol of Access (ISA) designed in the 60’s, therefore, expresses the wrong visual values for the modern disabled community. A symbol reinforces the original beliefs and values. This lead to a proposed redesign of the ISA under the Accessible Icon project in America in 2014. Taking the symbol from a representative of a passive and stationary individual to one of action, strength and movement. The symbol was quickly introduced by some American states and institutions but is not currently accepted as the new official ISA.”

Who is against?

Disability icon parking

The Accessible Icon Project has definitely sparked debate as intended. Under every article that discusses the symbol there are people both within and outside of the disabled community who argue for both sides. Lauren Kelly explores the divide more:

“The opinion within the disabled community has been split, with some stating that it doesn’t represent the extremes of conditions. It is difficult to get one symbol to represent such a diverse community. How does a single symbol represent people with disabilities from those with physical to mental disabilities, each at varying degrees?

“Symbols are also used in different contexts, for which the different subconscious values may be useful. Some may argue that having the more action filled symbol in places where disabled people have more independence is the better way to represent the community. For example at the supermarket parking space verses within a health department. What can be agreed is no one symbol will accurately represent everyone. Other symbols exist to denote visual and auditory impairment, but none currently for mental disabilities due to their difficulty in visual representation.”

The most often bemoaned aspect is the money it will cost to change the symbol, from updating road markings to altering signage. Many feel this money could be better spent elsewhere.

IainMC’s comment on a BBC article seems to sum up a strong tide of feeling: “I would agree with many other comments that the sign is perfectly clear as it is. If any money is to be spent, it should go towards improving accessibility and not rebranding. This, to me, is common sense.”

While Oll feels it fails to represent disabilities that do and do not require wheelchairs: “I’m sure that the majority of wheelchair users who can’t zoom about in their chair because their condition renders this impossible, through pain or simply not being physically able deserve to be represented more than the minority that are lucky enough to be able to still get around with relative ease (who would probably also agree with that in most cases).”

Image credit: Dr Satendra (Wikimedia commons), Steve Johnson (Flickr), AccessibleIconPixabay

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