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International Symbol of Access

Written by: Matt Cuppari

The International Symbol of Access was created in 1968 by a Danish design student named Susanne Koefoed. One year later, after some modifications to the design, it was formally adopted by the World Congress. In 1974, the design became a designated international symbol of disability by the United Nations. The original logo was designed because persons who were disabled physically and mentally, were in need of renewed attention. The symbol is seen as access for wheelchairs users, and other disability issues, to remove environmental barriers that restrict access. The ISA symbol designates parking spots, marks vehicles used by disabled people, marks public restrooms with facilities designed for wheelchair users, indicates a button for automatic doors, indicates an accessible transit station or vehicle, etc. 

The original wheelchair symbol has appeared around the world for decades on roads, signs, restrooms, doors, etc. -Photo taken by: MabelAmber

After years of designing buildings and spaces for individuals to function effectively, experts and activists started to question the idea of designing spaces for people with disabilities. Highlighting the flaws in how architects are thinking towards constructing a building so that not just able-bodied users can operate but people with disabilities as well. Changing people’s views on how we look at disability became the driving force in universal design. A big question that arose was the topic of using a logo like the ISA to distinguish if an environmental space is functional for a person with a disability.

Ronald Mace was an American architect, product designer, educator and founder of Barrier Free Environments who was the leading thinker to first question the symbol used for disabilities. Having a disability, Mace could share the first-hand experience when he talks about design “The symbol has been useful and helpful where standards require minimum numbers of facilities to be accessible but if all toilet rooms on every floor were equally accessible, there would be no need for such a symbol or sign.” The big question is how can we stop distinguishing this divide between able-bodied people and those who have disabilities? Why can’t we just start designing spaces that are inclusive to all?

Image from the project Visibility93 of their new symbols that range from mental illnesses like anxiety, bipolar disorder, or depression, to physical conditions like asthma, arthritis, or diabetes.

Much controversy has arisen in society because of the discrimination of the ISA and how it does not properly identify with all types of disabilities, including invisible ones. “The current ISA has an unequivocal meaning that was instantly apparent at first sight when it was first presented. We don’t profess to say everyone with an invisible disability wants to openly reveal their disease to the public. However, shouldn’t people have the option to do so if they wish, without being discriminated against?” With the current ISA symbol portraying that disabled people cannot do things for themselves, even looking like they need to be pushed by somebody, it made people realize that the logo does not equally represent the disabled. The original logo was a stick figure in a wheelchair that was later added a “head” to the body. This is now the current logo and in recent years has been modified to a person in a wheelchair that looks like it is participating in a “wheelchair race”. This signifies the abilities that the disabled community has and that their inabilities do not define them. 

The Accessible Icon Project began with orange decals, which were stuck over accessibility icons throughout Boston. -Photo taken by: Accessible Icon Project

For example, my uncle Frank who graduated in the class of 1982 from NJIT with a degree in Architectural Engineering, has some insight on this topic. When speaking to him about his experience as an Architect in today’s world, he describes it as “difficult to accommodate everyone”. By this, he means that in his perspective it would best suit people of all types of disabilities or restrictions to design more diverse and improved access in buildings to identify to the whole disabled community.

Moving forward, we as a community must take an initiative in making a greater difference in our world to create more efficient equality for the disabled population. Specifically, implementing this on the campus of Saint Joseph’s University would be a great start to come together and be the change through Project Bloom. I believe changing all of the ISA symbols on campus to the updated design is imperative as it is the most distinguishing factor between disabled and non-disabled individuals. We need to start questioning decisions made around the campus and let our voices be heard that we do not agree with this sort of action anymore. It is time to live in the present day and allow the ISA symbol to evolve with society. By being conscious of what is being done around our campus in terms of accessibility, Project Bloom believes this will empower individuals with disabilities to be heard from faculty and the city of Philadelphia. 

Famous quote by Robert M. Hensel.
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