Learning About

Access Signs and Symbols
Visual Communication

Deepening your Understanding

In the late 1960s, a number of countries discussed the need for a symbol to designate accessible facilities. Countries including France, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States had developed symbols on their own, but they decided that there was a need for one consistent image that was clear, recognizable from a distance, and designed with no other meaning. The International Symbol of Access was formally recognized by the World Congress in 1969 and given universal stature in 1974 by the United Nations (Rehabilitation International, n.d.).

Here are some specific uses for the International Symbol of Access:

  • Signs that mark accessible parking spaces used by people with disabilities
  • Mark permits for vehicles used by persons with disabilities to indicate permission to use accessible parking spaces
  • Signs that mark public bathroom doors designed for wheelchair users
  • Indicate a button to activate an accessible automatic door
  • Indicate an accessible transit vehicle that has accessible seating
  • Show barrier-free and accessible entrances to buildings
  • Indicate accessible and usable facilities like movie theatres and art galleries

There have been a number of projects that have worked to revise the International Symbol of Access, aiming to emphasize the fact that people who use wheelchairs or mobility devices are active users. And, if buildings were universally designed with everyone in mind, there would be no need for an icon at all.

Illustration of a lit lightbulb

Spotlight: Accessible Icon Project

the accessible icon project logo

A revised version of the International Symbol of Access is being proposed by The Accessible Icon Project. This organization has designed a new version of the symbol that is free to use and downloadable on their websiteopen new window.

The Accessible Icon project started in 2011 as a street art campaign. Red transparent stickers showing the wheelchair user leaning forward and in motion were placed on top of original images so both images were visible. Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren applied stickers on signs around Boston and made the image public domain and free to use. The icon is now seen all over the world and is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Artopen new window in New York City (Accessible Icon, n.d.).

Before the 1960s, there was no universally acknowledged accessibility icon. During the 1960s, the Disability Rights Movement gained momentum, and as part of this, Rehabilitation International launched a design competition for Scandinavian design students and the winner was Danish graphic design student Susanne Koefoed. Her design was a simple image of a stick figure using a wheelchair to indicate barrier-free access. The original image had no head, and it was modified by adding a circle at the top of the figure, representing a head.

The blue and white logo of stick figure using a wheelchair is now the International Symbol of Access, as endorsed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the United Nations (UN). It is used around the world to indicate accessibility features.

While this image is acknowledged as being important for its historical impact, it has been found to be lacking by some members of the disability community and its allies. Sara Hendren is one of the founders of the Accessible Icon Project and hopes that the new icon will replace the current one. The new icon looks more active and modern, and it gives a sense of autonomy, according to Hendren (99 Percent Invisible, 2014).

Silhouette of a human face speaking

99% Invisibleopen a new window is a podcast about architecture, cities, design, and technology.

Episode 102 discusses the creation of the International Symbol of Access (ISO) icon and how The Accessible Icon Project has created a new logo that they hope will replace the ISO standard. Some of the differences include:

  • The head is forward which indicates that the person is deciding about their own mobility.
  • The angle of the arm suggests a body in motion that navigates the world.
  • The white knock outs in the wheel indicate motion.

Click on the image below to listen to the 99% Invisible Icon for Access podcast.

99% invisible logo
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