RM: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.
RM: There is a beauty to a universal standard. The idea that people across the world can agree that when they interact with one specific thing, everyone will be on the same page. Regardless of language, or culture, or geographic locale. If I’m in Belgrade, or Shanghai, or Sao Paolo, I can look at a sign and know instantly, without speaking a word of a local language, that this floor is slippery. That the emergency exit is over there. That that substance is poisonous, and I should not eat it.
LO: The group behind those internationally recognized logos is called ISO, The International Organization for Standardization.
RM: That’s reporter, Lauren Ober.
LO: And one of the most recognizable ISO symbols is The International Symbol of Access. That’s the formal name of the blue and white logo with a stick figure in a wheelchair. Around the world, you see The International Symbol of Access everywhere. Parking spaces, on buttons that operate automatic doors, in bathrooms, and on seats on the bus, or at movie theatres. Anywhere where there’s an indication of special accomodations made for people with disabilities.
RM: Prior to the late 1960’s there was no universally agreed upon accessibility icon. Everyone used a different symbol, if they bothered to use on at all.
LO: But in the 1960’s, the Disability Rights movement started picking up steam. In 1968, a group now called Rehabilitation International announced a design contest to create an international symbol of access. The logo would have to be readily identifable from a reasonable distance, self descriptive, simple, unambiguous, and practical. The winner was a danish Designer named Susanne Koefed.
RM: The modern stick figure in wheelchair logo that we know today is actually a slightly modified version from the original. That one didn’t have a head.
LO: Within a decade, the logo, the one with a head, was endorsed by both the United Nations and ISO. Remember this is the group that sets iconographic standards across countries. And so over time, this logo, The International Symbol of Access, began to get embedded in the urban fabric of cities and towns across the world. People began to pay attention to the kinds of special building accommodations that spaces need, to be inviting for people with varying degrees of ability. And then in 1990, congress passed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, which President George H.W. Bush signed into law. The ADA was modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
RM: The law, and I’m reading this from the ADA website here, quote, “Prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life. To enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase good and services, and to participate in state and local government programs and services. End quote. And I think it’s fair to say that having a single attractive logo to signify a universal right for access helped create an atmosphere in which the built world could begin to adapt to new building parameters and regulations, as specified per the ADA. In many ways, the adoption of the International Accessibility Icon is a success story. In a simple design, changing the world for the better.
SH: I think the current image always has to be lauded for its historic importance. It’s a form of wayfinding, it’s a form of easy navigation in the environment and, you know, it’s historically profound. I mean, it’s politically important that now you know you’re guaranteed when you go out, you’re gonna find one of these spaces that’s reserved, you’re able to count on accommodation.
LO: But this isn’t the end of the story, because as the logo got absorbed into the built environment, people with disabilities and their allies started finding it kind of lacking.
SH: The shapes of the body, and the body parts on that icon are squared off, and geometric.
LO: And even though it does have a head…
SH: The head dangles from the neck, and the neck is in this unnaturally erect posture. There’s not a sense of organic shapes of the body in space.
LO: That’s Sarah Hendren, by the way.
SH: My name is Sarah Hendren, I’m an artist and design researcher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I think a lot about prosthetics, adaptive technologies, and disability studies and disability politics.
RM: Sarah Hendren is also a lecturer at RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design.
LO: And, most importantly for our purposes, Sarah is the co-founder of The Accessible Icon Project. This movement, because I think that’s what this has become, a movement, is made up of designers, activists, artists, academics, and disability advocates all trying to change the conversation about disability in their communities. And so for starters, The Accessible Icon Project has taken aim at the standard blue and white wheelchair icon.
RM: They’ve created a new icon that they hope will ultimately replace the ISO standard. It’s still a white figure in a wheelchair, positioned in a blue field, but the head and body are tilted forward.
LO: The arm is angled back, as if it’s propelling the user, and the wheel looks like it’s in motion. The visible leg is also moved forward and re-angled, so it looks more active, and doesn’t just disappear into the wheel. It looks modern, almost sleek.
RM: You’ll do a pretty good job picturing it if you imagine the new logo as the old logo, but italicized.
LO: Changing an ISO standard isn’t easy. A proposal has to be submitted and reviewed by ISO’s Technical Committee on Graphical Symbols. Then it has to be considered by symbols experts from around the world, and then finally approved by ISO’s member countries. I talked with Barry Gray, the chairman of The Technical Committee on Graphical Symbols.
RM: Oh my God I want Barry Gray’s job.
LO: He says he’s seen the new logo, and applauds the designers for the icons dynamism. But he told me a lot of factors would have to be taken into account before the current symbol could be replaced.
RM: Like whether this new icon might be confused with symbols used for wheelchair racing.
LO: So, as much good as the current logo has done, Sarah Hendron among others, takes issue with how the logo portrays people with disabilities. It has this immobile look to it. The figure in the image looks like it’s waiting to be pushed around. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with anyone who experiences mobility in that way, it’s just that for Hendren, the implicit message the icon sends is that people with disabilities are helpless.
RM: And this new logo grants a sense of autonomy to the figure in the wheelchair. And there’s a clearer delineation between where the person starts, and chair begins.
GC: I think what the former icon lacked was, there just wasn’t any definition of moving forward. You know? It was just kinda, uh, stoic. Whereas this symbol shows that the Malden community is moving full steam ahead. We are ALL moving full steam ahead.
LO: Gary Christensen is the mayor of Malden, Massachusetts. A town of about 60,000.
GC: 60,000 diverse residents.
LO: Mayor Christiansen worked with a disability advocacy organization called Triangle, to replace the old symbol all over Malden. And he is really enthusiastic about it. He wants..
GC: To have every conceivable spot here in Malden replaced with this accessible icon project as soon as possible. If you talk to Jeff Gentry from Triangle, he would tell you that I’ve emailed him, called him, texted him, pigeon carried him, to find out when we can replace every symbol here in the city of Malden. That’s how eager I am to try and fulfil this wonderful initiative.
LO: At this point in our conversation, the mayor handed the phone over to Jeff Gentry from Triangle.
JG: Hi Lauren, how are you?
LO: Together, Triangle and the mayor’s office have gotten the new logo at the Talbot’s Distribution Center in Malden, and at Clark’s Shoes, which has it’s U.S. headquarters in Newton, MA not too far away.
JG: People with disabilities are no longer accepting separate but equal work, school, life opportunities. They’re moving forward towards a richer future, and hopefully the icon creates dialogue around that. I believe that the accessible icon is creating a more inclusive world, like we’re building here in Malden.
LO: When I asked pro new signage advocates about how they’re expanding its use, they would point to local success stories elsewhere. Both Jeff Gentry and Sarah Hendren from the Accessible Icon Project referred me to a guy named…
BH: My name is Brendon Hildreth.
LO: Brendon HIldreth. A disability rights activist in North Carolina.
BH: Hello, my name is Brendon. I am not a machine, or robot.
RM: Brendon has Cerebral Palsy and hearing loss, and speaks through an augmentative communication device, or a talking machine. We reproducted it here using an interview transcript.
BH: This project is way more than just a picture and a symbol to me. The project to me shows that people with disabilities can be active and participate. It makes people understand about the disabilities rights movement.
LO: Brendon has been working to bring the accessibilities sign to his town, New Bern.
BH: I did a lot, speaking with television and radio stations locally about the new icon. I have a letter from the state to allow me to use the icon here. I have painted the new icon in several businesses in New Bern, and still have many more to do. People at the North Carolina state level like the new icon. They thank me for bringing the icon here. Jeff, Brian, and Sarah…
LO: As in, Jeff Gentry of Triangle, and Brian Glenney, and Sarah Hendren from the Accessible Icon Project.
BH: Realized how many businesses I am getting to use the new icon. Then they made me Regional Director of North Carolina for The Icon Project because I am kicking their butts in getting the icon out in the world.
LO: Sarah Hendren says she’s not interested in what she calls “sign washing”, or getting the logo changed just to be politically correct. She says this project is a process of consciousness raising, quote unquote, so that each time the sign is officially changed, there’s intention around it, and dialogue about disability.
RM: But a symbol meant to start dialogue and spread through grassroots action is very different than one created to be a universal, and internationally recognized symbol. There’s a lack of clarity as to whether this new sign meets the standards put into effect by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
LO: Even though the law states that reasonable changes can be made to this symbol as long as it clearly displays the wheelchair and indicates accessibility, there are still questions about what constitutes a functional equivalent. New York City had planned to adopt the new logo in all five boroughs, but this legal ambiguity caused them to hold off implementing it, at least for now.
SH: I think a lot of people end up buying that old, original image because they’re nervous, about complying with ADA code. And I think what we’re trying to do is say, “Look, functional equivalence you know, has a kind of, legal set of definitions and contours, those are the things that are probably gonna need to be worked out at the state level.” But it’s not as though functional equivalence means willy nilly personal interpretation. It means, as long as it’s perfectly clear that you’re indicating access for wheelchair users, you can do a different kind of version of the icon.
RM: So it all comes back to the question of what we are trying to accomplish through our symbols. Having one unified icon can tell one clear story all over the world. But sometimes stories change. We said earlier that the group behind the original call for an international symbol of access is called, Rehabilitation International. Well, in the 1940’s, it was known by another name: The International Society for the Welfare of Cripples. The meanings and associations that words have, shift over time, and sometimes the symbols need to as well. You know, universality, it does have an upside. Especially if you’re in Belgrade, and you’re about to accidentally eat poison.