PERSPECTIVES | Who does the International Symbol of Access represent?

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MAY 2019

The International Symbol of Access (ISA) has become a universally accepted icon during the past 50 years, yet new versions have appeared causing controversy. As we become a more digital world, disability activists continue to develop universal symbols, including emoji, that accurately and appropriately represent the breadth of our community.

Rochelle Steiner, who curated the Access+Ability exhibit at Cooper Hewitt, observed about the ISA, “It’s something that we sort of take for granted. That we see all over the U.S. and all over the world as a symbol of disability.”

Many advocates believe that having a universal symbol, regardless of design, is important for the disability community. As Elizabeth Guffey writes in The New York Times, “... I’ve long recognized this symbol as a kind of lifeline that allows me to participate in and contribute to larger society. But it also reminds us that a legal right shared by everyone — disabled or not. And it reminds us of our fundamental obligation to support one another and to continue building the barrier-free society that we know we can build.”

In the past decade, there have been attempts to update the ISA by using a symbol that appears more dynamic, showing the active lives of people with disabilities. This updated symbol gained popularity and was officially adopted by some states, including New York. Mike Mort of Disabled Identity favors the new icon. He “think[s] this is a step, roll if you will, in the right direction. To me, the more active look of the ‘revamped’ icon better represents the freedom and equality that accessibility truly brings.” However, activist Cathy Ludlum said, “The old symbol leaves everything up to the imagination. The new symbol seems to say that independence has everything to do with the body, which it doesn’t. Independence is who you are inside.”

There is a segment of the community that doesn’t support the wheelchair symbol as representative of the community since “93 percent of people with disabilities don’t use a wheelchair.” Liam Riddler of the ad agency McCann “agrees that the current symbol is extremely powerful and successful. But he points out that it really only works well for people with more visible disabilities.” To address this issue, he created 29 new icons representing people with invisible disabilities.

Disability activist and scholar Anthony Tusler thinks it’s a mistake to change a symbol that’s already universally understood and represents a unified disability rights community. “This new, frivolous, sign-changing movement is dangerous and threatens the core premise of accessibility and our sometimes fragile coalition of people with...disabilities...The argument that ‘It doesn’t look like me!’ is foolish.”

As we continue to adapt symbols and create disability-related emoji, people with disabilities need to be part of the development process. Accessibility consultant Cherry Thompson notes, “Things keep getting done without us for us. We’ve been fighting to be included in the progress of design decisions that involve us for decades, and it still feels like we’re fighting to be heard.”