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People all over the world recognize the International Symbol of Accessibility.

International Symbol of Accessibility

International Symbol of Accessibility

The unmistakable symbol which depicts a person in a wheelchair is used to indicate accessible features in the built environment as well as parking that is reserved for people with disabilities. First introduced in the late 1960s, the International Organization for Standardization (IOS) officially established the symbol decades ago. Today, the International Symbol of Access is said to be one of the most recognized symbols in the world.

As many are aware, however, there has been a global movement by disability advocates to update the International Symbol in recent years. A new, “dynamic” design featuring the image of a person with a disability actively engaged in forward motion has been proposed. Advocates for this  symbol argue that the International Symbol is outdated, portraying people with disabilities as passive and dependent on wheelchairs.

dynamic access symbol
A “dynamic” access symbol

Although many places and institutions are already using the active symbol, no alternative to the International Symbol has been formally adopted. In May 2015, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) released an official interpretation of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) on alternative designs of the accessibility symbol. The interpretation states that traffic control devices, such as signs bearing the International Symbol of Access, must be tested “to ensure adequate levels of comprehension, recognition, and legibility” and that the proposed “active” symbols do not meet the MUTCD requirement that symbols be “unmistakably similar” to adopted symbols shown in the MUTCD.

Further, the interpretation also cites concern that the use of alternative symbols may compromise the ability to enforce regulations. In other words, lack of uniformity in the accessibility symbol may encourage some individuals to violate laws and regulations on the basis that varying symbols could cause confusion. What the new ruling means is that the laws as they are currently written only recognize the International Symbol of Access and therefore other symbols are not considered acceptable for use in signage until the applicable laws change.

The original intent of the campaign to update the access symbol was to spark public dialogue about how disability is viewed by society. Regardless of whether a more dynamic symbol will eventually replace the International Symbol, it can be said that the goal of starting a conversation about what it means to have a disability has been achieved and that is a positive thing for people of all abilities. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

For questions about structural access and accessible design, contact MOD to speak to our Community Services Program.

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