#TIL: Evolution of the Accessibility Icon

By Divya Chirayath

Source: https://medium.com/we-included/symbols-play-a-significant-role-in-our-life-30fafe9260d

Most of us would have come across the symbol of a stick figure sitting on a wheelchair in public spaces.

In its original form, this was a Danish design student’s winning submission to Rehabilitation International’s call for proposals for a universal symbol of accessibility for wheelchair users. The initial design was a simple stick figure on the axis of a wheel, later modified to add a head at the top in response to concerns over the letter-like appearance of the symbol. The modified symbol was then incorporated by the ISO as the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA).

Image description: Original ISA- White stick figure of a person sitting on the axis of a wheel. The background is black.
Image description: Original ISA- White stick figure of a person sitting on the axis of a wheel. The background is black.
Source: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/icon-for-access/

Image description: Original ISA- White stick figure of a person sitting on the axis of a wheel. The background is black.

Over the years, the ISA has received criticism for not being representative of every disability and impliying the passive immobility of wheelchair users.

Source: https://accessibleicon.org/#read

Image description: A clear sticker (red) of the new icon applied over the ISA (white and blue) at a parking spot.

In 2010, Sara Hendren, a graphic designer, began noticing that some accessibility icons had subtle differences like thicker stick figures and tilted head and arm positions, implying motion and agency of the wheelchair user. In an attempt to mainstream this more inclusive symbol, she started a street campaign in Boston to ‘edit’ all existing accessibility signs by applying clear-backed stickers to show the newer figure over the older one. The street campaign culminated in the Accessible Icon Project that promotes the use of the new icon. Although not universally accepted yet, the new icon is slowly replacing the old one in many significant establishments, like the US Department of The Treasury and the Museum of Modern Art.

The evolution of the ISA has raised important questions about how society perceives Persons with Disabilities. The swift adoption of the evolved symbol reflects a paradigm shift in attitudes around PwDs as objects of charity to subjects with rights and the agency to claim them.

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