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