Vintage View: The universal icon for disability or ISA now 50 years old

Graphic design is all around us, embedded in our built environment and collective consciousness. 

It’s an interesting thing to try with children when you’re out and about in any large town or city — have them spot and read municipal signage that we interpret and obey in a split second. 

These universal symbols are vital for our easy passage around streets, entertainment facilities, public spaces, airports, schools, hospitals - everywhere.

It’s one thing to be completely perplexed by a neon vagina nailed to a toilet door in a private club in Amsterdam, but international symbols must be unequivocal.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of an icon we take for granted every day of the week and that is seen everywhere from lifts to parking spaces and washrooms - the International Symbol of Access (ISA) for disability access.

The ISA was worked up from a sketch at the Stockholm art and design college by Danish art student Susanne Koefoed in 1968 for a competition sponsored by the United Nations and the International Standards Organization (ISO). 

The brief was informed by the demand for barrier-free-access for the disabled in general. Koefoed’s solution was well received by municipal planners and the design community. The RI’s International Commission of Technology and Accessibility (ICTA) presented the ISA at a Rehabilitation International (RI) convention in Dublin in 1969.

The accepted disability icon (ISO 7001) features a white stick figure sitting upright in a stylised half circle of chair on a blue background. The figure in the chair did not originally have a head (disturbing on a number of levels) — this was added after prompting from a committee of the RI to make it more immediately understood.

 The head today is often tipped forward and somewhat bowed, the user’s arms integrated stiffly into the vehicle which dominates the image.

It suggests both physical and mental passivity. It also only indicates conditions requiring individuals who use the highly visible flagging of a wheelchair.

The majority of people with a disabling condition (cognitive, developmental, intellectual, mental, physical, and sensory) do not use a wheelchair. Why would they identify with the ISA? It’s worth noting the intelligent, compassionate, proactive changes in the politics surrounding disability.

 The RI who approved the ISA was founded in 1922, and originally called (steady yourself) — The International Society for the Welfare of Cripples.

The worrying thing is, the ISA has made an impact on what is perceived as standard disability. Stories abound in the press of badge holding disabled drivers, being challenged at ISA parking spaces because they are not using a wheel-chair, a frame or crutches. This indicates that some people think that those utilising facilities carrying the wheelchair symbol, should have walking difficulties and/or be in a wheelchair. 

This is obviously completely and utterly wrong, and from next year the Department of Transport in the UK is recognising invisible disability by giving parking badges to a wider range of disabled people.

What is ‘barrier-free-access’ if you have conditions on the autism spectrum and need a quiet space to be for 20 minutes on a busy day at work or college? 

Many Irish institutions including UCC, include sensory rooms and quiet rooms. Why would there be an ISA on the doors of such rooms? Has the ISA become inadequate to the task? Design activists have suggested not only an edit of the original ISA but adding to the language with new icons to cover a whole range of disabling conditions.

The Accessible Icon Project was started in Boston in 2010, by the designer and writer Sarah Hendren and her colleague Brian Glenney. Declaring first that ‘an icon is a verb’ the team would inject fresh, articulate life into the ISA using creative hacks Hendren found around town of the standard handicapped sign used since the late 60s.

 A clear new sign was stuck on or sprayed down graffiti style over the old ISA around Boston, sparking interest in the media and a city wide conversation.

The modified ISA shows a figure leaning forward, dynamically moving the chair which has lost its atrophied arms of 1968 and uses cut-outs to the wheel indicating movement. New modified ISA stickers, free to appropriate for public areas, showing this free-wheeler laid over the original ISA, are now available on the Project’s website and accepted by some if not all American traffic authorities.

The project is managed by community organisation Triangle Inc., staffed by young adults with disabilities. There has been some debate around changing the ISA in this quietly rebellious way, and for a fuller exploration of the principles, arguments and evolution of this graphic design project go to accessibleicon.org.

In Europe, members of the disabled community, activists, commentators, advocates for disabilities of all kinds and some members of the design community find the lack the inclusivity of the 1968 ISA to be troubling. The generality of the icon to the more socially aware as a fit-for-all solution for disabled facilities and spaces is being challenged.

This month, the creative agency, McCann London in tandem with Invisible Disability Project in San Diego, is attempting to start a conversation by their launch of the Visibility93 campaign. 

This is a crowd-source design competition suggesting a redesign and diversification of the jaded, and some would say excluding, 1968 ISA. 

Most importantly this is to include invisible disability – subtle conditions not immediately obvious (or obvious at all) such as ADHD, ABI, epilepsy, autism and more – thought to make up 93% of the disabled community who do not use a wheelchair.

Anyone with an interest in exploring this new and badly needed visual language and the social flux surrounding it, can download new suggested fonts at visability93.com, and follow the growing and essential conversation at instagram.com/visability93/.


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