New Accessibility Symbol is Frivolous

by Anthony Tusler

We don’t need a new accessibility symbol. The one we have works. Designed in 1968, the blue on white graphic of the wheelchair guy is now known worldwide. Yes, it’s a stick figure of someone using a wheelchair. But, it no longer has much to do with either wheelchairs or stick figures. It represents accessibility in the built environment. It represents our disability freedom.

When we see the International Symbol of Access (its official title) we know there is access for all kinds of people. If you’re a wheelchair user or have difficulty climbing steps, or are rolling your suitcase, this existing access symbol signals there will be a ramp instead of stairs. But, and this is important, it also means other accessibility features in our world — the wide toilet stall, the parking place, or the electric shopping carts at Costco. Sure, a lot of wheelchair users need them, but so do people with other disabilities.

The current accessibility symbol doesn’t represent people, it illustrates an accessible environment. I never thought it looked like me. Rehabilitation International helped create the accessibility symbol in 1968 to meet the need for a universal sign of accessibility in the built environment. In their call for a new graphic they said it “must be readily identifiable from a reasonable distance, must be self-descriptive, must be simple yet esthetically designed with no secondary meaning, and must be practical.” The now 46 year-old-design does all that. The new proposal does not.

There is a move to replace the current access symbol with a new “symbol that looks more like a person in a wheelchair race.” The existing symbol, they say, “creates the impression of someone who needs a push to get through the world.” Promoters seek to replace the well-recognized and still serviceable symbol with a wheelchair racer. The proposed graphic attempts to diminish disability discrimination by making the figure more in control and acceptable looking. The idea for a new graphic is gaining some traction in New York and Massachusetts, and is even being considered by the state legislatures.

What’s the problem? Why shouldn’t we make the access symbol more dynamic? The primary reason it’s a bad idea is it contradicts the central, key principal of the disability rights movement and all of the profound accessibility gains over the past 46 years. The suggested symbol focuses on the individual. It divides us from our strength as a carefully constructed coalition. The disability revolution that started in the late 1960s demanded environmental change by a coalition of people with different disabilities. Changing the environment was the profound concept that fueled the disability rights movement. The medical model says we have to fix the individual with a disability. The independent living movement demands we fix access in our country, states, and cities. For example, a ramp is a cheaper and more useful solution than funding chair-climbing wheelchairs. Our movement demanded a shift from the individual’s problems to society’s problems.

With all the problems assaulting our community, why do we need a new accessibility symbol? We don’t need a new graphic. The existing one works. The official symbol is meant to be an abstract symbol (adopted by the International Organization for Standardization and the United Nations Experts meeting in 1974). This is our history. When those power wheelchair users in Berkeley allied themselves with the blind community, they designed the first user-centric curb cuts and path of travel. And, they convinced the city of Berkeley to install them up and down Telegraph and Shattuck Avenues. Note, these were two groups who aligned despite very different needs. That’s where our political strength has come from. We got the first disability civil rights legislation passed by people with all kinds of disabilities joining together and occupying the San Francisco Federal building. What’s that got to do with the access symbol? Well, the original access symbol represents the needs of many, not just active wheelchair users.

This new, frivolous, sign-changing movement is dangerous and threatens the core premise of accessibility and our sometimes fragile coalition of people with mobility, sensory, intellectual, and emotional disabilities. We need to maintain and strengthen that coalition. The argument that “It doesn’t look like me!” is foolish. Why should it look like me? It is the complete antithesis of what the existing symbol is about. Disability is not about how active we are, or good looking, or even “able.” Disability is about how disabled people are shoved to the margins of society. Disability is about our pride — our brothers and sisters. That’s disability. The established accessibility symbol includes dynamic, active wheelers and every other disabled person who relies on it.

Access Sign Must Keep Up With Our Times

by Finn Bullers

Ever since man first set foot on the moon, our stoic, stick-figure symbol designating access for people with disabilities has not changed.

That was more than 45 years ago.

Since then, technology has given people with disabilities powerful tools to access the world. But our access signs have not kept up with our times and have not kept pace with today’s active and robust disability community that supports the life-affirming new access symbol.

People in Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin support the symbol initiated by The Accessible Icon Project — Supporters also can be found in France and India.

Kamisha is one of many young wheelchair users around the nation who are excitedly laying down stencils from the Accessible Icon Project

Kamisha is one of many young wheelchair users around the nation who are excitedly laying down stencils from the Accessible Icon Project and replacing the old with the new icon with the new.

A growing chorus of people with disabilities is not content with the “rigid, stoic” and “disengaged” likeness that focus groups at Gordon College near Boston say represents our community on today’s signs in parking lots, elevators and elsewhere.

Instead, we support a slightly revised International Symbol of Access that many in the disability community perceive as “active, engaged” and “life affirming.” Even the federal Social Security Administration uses the modified symbol on its website home page.

We are simply asking government at all levels to — over time if necessary — adopt an access sign replacement policy that installs the new signs as the old signs wear out. That’s the approach taken in New York where the symbol has been adopted. The cost: $0.00.

At first, we launched a grassroots initiative to engage the public in a conversation about how people with disabilities are and should be perceived in an effort to shatter an outdated stereotype reinforced by today’s access signs. Now — with a demonstrated groundswell of grassroots support — it’s time to solidify, with no room for equivocation, the message that the modified symbol provides “equivalent accessibility” as does the stoic International Symbol of Access in use today.

Since 1968 when the first access symbol was designed with no head, to today’s engaged and life-affirming symbol we propose, the access icon has been an evolving symbol reflecting the best face of the disability community to the nondisabled world.

But today, our access signs have not kept pace with our technological times. Today we have complex rehab power wheelchairs, the exoskeleton and a cutting-edge, mind-controlled wheelchair.

Unfortunately, we still are stuck with stick-figure access signs that make wheelchair users a mechanical function of old-school wheelchairs warehoused in nondescript brick institutions of exclusion.

Symbolism matters. But as long as stereotypes represent people with disabilities on signs we see several times a day at the grocery store, library or shopping mall, the longer it will take to shatter the stereotypes of dependence, paternalism, condescension and helplessness.

Our proposed symbol is empowering, vibrant and vital — a symbol that plants a subconscious truth with each exposure and begins to break down artificial barriers between people with disabilities and the nondisabled world. Rules of governance are intended to enforce the will of the people, not serve as a slavish obstruction to progressive disability civil rights legislation. Consider one thought-provoking question: Does a nondisabled, decision-making group such as a federal agency, state or local government have the moral standing to legislate how a minority disability population is perceived by the public? History proves that once a minority group is characterized by those who think they best know the minority experience, the people in that minority group lose control of their own identity and humanity.

In the absence of pricey scientific polling, we believe a majority of the nation’s disability community supports the Accessible Icon Project’s symbol — a symbol of a person in motion, propelled forward and by extension, full of life.

Symbolism matters, academics tell us. Repeated exposure to a powerful symbol subconsciously helps shatter negative disability stereotype. There’s a reason Coke and Pepsi spend tens of millions a year on branding a positive message. Our brand? Hope, power, equality and strength.

For the nondisabled community, the modified symbol sends the message that people with disabilities want jobs. We want to pay taxes and we want to contribute to society. And we can do the job given a level playing field on which to raise our families, compete for jobs and seek the happiness codified in our U.S. Constitution.

It starts here. It starts now. And for one in five Americans with a disability, it starts with an access sign of change. Let’s make it happen.