Q. Some local advocates have made a proposal to our county council to adopt a new version of the symbol that appears in all of the accessible parking spaces in our community. I feel that this change will be a distraction from the very limited progress we have made in trying to get the ADA accepted and implemented. Am I wrong to think that this change is unnecessary and may even be illegal?
When I read through the many documents referring to the ADA, I see photos and illustrations that refer to the figure in the wheelchair as the International Symbol of Accessibility. If this is truly an international symbol, and a part of our laws, why would changing it locally be acceptable? There is currently little, if any, enforcement of our parking regulations, even though signs displaying the ISA are in place at the head of parking spaces and painted on the ground. There is much more ADA enforcement needed before we start changing any signs.
— Still Seeking More Parking
A. Those pushing for this change are introducing the new symbol through businesses and at lower levels of government — states, cities and counties. One of the problems with that approach is that the ISA is not just a local symbol. It actually originated in Europe prior to passage of the ADA, where it was adopted by the International Organization for Standardization and made a part of the International Building Code. The American National Standards Institute followed that code and so did those who developed accessibility regulations for the ADA. Those codes do not allow even a slight variation in the symbol. The ISA has since been made a part of the law in more than 140 countries that have adopted the recommendations of the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Parking regulations, building codes and a variety of laws at all levels of government refer to the ISA, and making changes to the symbol’s design without updating all of these laws would likely make them unenforceable and subject to abuse by those who already ignore accessible parking requirements and the ADA Accessibility Guidelines. It is important to remember that even disability parking placards that are effective in other states have a common design element that includes the current ISA. Unless there is a universal change to the law, it is possible that other jurisdictions would not recognize the legality of parking placards displaying the proposed symbol for accessibility.
The ISA and other mandated signage has been extensively tested for its ability to be recognized by people with all types of disabilities, including visual and cognitive disabilities. The Access Board has weighed in on this issue already, warning that any proposed changes require testing before they can be considered equivalent to what is currently in place. The Federal Highway Administration also issued an opinion that replacement of the ISA with a new symbol prior to testing and approval by the Access Board would be illegal, even if approved locally or by states.
Also, the proposed symbol resembles an active manual wheelchair user in the act of racing. Some wheelchair users who lack that ability have pointed out that the new symbol is a disrespectful representation that marginalizes their disabilities. Before any changes occur, some explanation as to why they are necessary needs to be discussed with all affected. The ISA is not only for identifying accessible parking spaces; it also identifies accessible routes and features used by people with various disabilities, not just wheelchair users.
Even at a local level, some governing body needs to approve such a change. If there are objections to a proposal, it is important for those who disagree to speak up early through letters, email or testimony at a public hearing. For those advocates who seek these changes, a study about changing the ISA should be completed by a reputable research body. After that step, it could be presented to the Access Board for consideration. If the Access Board approves a change, it would then be forwarded to Congress for inclusion in periodic updates to the ADA.
Until then, the federal law takes precedence over whatever changes have been approved locally or at the state level. Failing to address the inter-jurisdictional, national and international implications of making changes to the ISA, even at the local level, disrespects those who worked so hard to draft, lobby for, and who still seek widespread enforcement of, this important disability civil rights law.