An International Symbol of Access

The original wheelchair user symbol (first image)—the International Symbol of Access (ISA)—has been with us since 1968. The visual understanding is of imparied mobility, but it now represents the broader spectrum of disabilities. Over the years a debate has been taking place as to whether this symbol is still relevant. Why?

Earlier this year, The International Union of Architects (UIA) and Rehabilitation International (RI) held a competition calling for a redesign of the symbol. A reasonable ask bearing in mind that over 90% of people with disabilities are not wheelchair users. The winning entry is shown below (second image). It is an open door, an abstract ‘a’ (for accessibility)? It is described as demonstrating “openness”. Is this an improvement? Is the meaning self-evident? Is it universal? Ignoring the graphic style, the strength of the original design, if not wholly appropriate, is that it is universally understood and well embedded in numerous cultures worldwide, not least helped by the passage of time. Different (cultural) perceptions and cognitions make the development of universal imagery almost impossible, so why create confusion with this change?

The International Symbol of Access (ISA) Winning entry for the UIA/RI competition to replace the ISA The Accessible Icon Project update of the ISA Apple’s universal accessibility symbol

Another (evolutionary) update, created over 10 years ago, is of wheelchair user (third image) that embeds more implied ‘mobility’. This was developed by The Accessible Icon Project and has gained quite a strong following and acceptance worldwide. However, it is not without its critics. Many assume it is a Paralympics sport pictogram and/or makes the occupant look more reliant on the wheelchair. An argument for the change centred around an understanding that an icon is a verb, so is therefore representational. To my understanding an icon is a ‘likeness’, so perhaps a somewhat misguided argument in this respect? It’s semantics, yes, but ‘symbol’ or ‘pictogram’ seem more appropriate terms. As an aside, this reflects the problem of misappropriated language and terms that seems to plague many disciplines, especially the digital world.

The American Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) developed a range of symbols to address different types of disability because why should there only be one ‘universal’ symbol? In an age where we all want to ‘identify as’ and celebrate difference, why do we seek to be represented by a single image? It seems sensible to me to have a unique symbol for each disability type that both acknowledges and communicates these differences, and be less ambiguous in doing so?

Apple, and others, employ what they describe as a universal accessibility symbol in their HCIs (fourth image). A single symbol approach like this is often necessary in digital design due to constraints imposed by screen estate. You could reasonably argue it's more successful than the others shown here, notwithstanding my interpretation, as it suggests that whatever our disability, we are all the same—embrace and celebrate that?! As it is already gaining increasing acceptance and application, perhaps it may come to superceed everything else in due course? Regardless, what is absolutely apparent is that the task of designing a highly simplified, generalised and universal graphic—for a worldwide audience—is a very complex task indeed.