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Re-designing History

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

Recently I learned the international symbol for disability is getting another makeover. Well, kind of. Just a few years after its first modification (nearly 50 years after the original was released), Rehabilitation International and the International Union of Architects are seeking design submissions for a new disability symbol that reflects the diversity of people who use buildings and other built environments.

But first, a quick history¹ of the most recognised symbol for disability the world over: the stick figure in the wheelchair. Designed by Danish design student Susanne Koefoed in 1968, the original sketch depicted an empty wheelchair and was exhibited at the conclusion of a university student organisation conference.

Picked up by some powerful people in Sweden, it was quickly circulated and widely used in the progressive Scandinavian nation before gaining the attention and being the symbol of choice (with the addition of a stick figure person added) by the Rehabilitation International in 1969 – a federation that consists of 145 organizations in 82 different countries².

As a result, it has been the International Symbol of Access (ISA) ever since. Wikipedia defines the symbol as “often seen where access has been improved, particularly for wheelchair users, but also for other disability issues.” Basically, it’s the world’s go-to to signify an area, tool or access point that has been designed and made available to assist with people with disability’s specific needs.

Fun fact: The wheelchair symbol is considered ‘International’ and therefore is not accompanied by Braille in any particular language.

Then in 2015, the symbol underwent its first update. Following calls from disability groups about the symbol’s lack of representation, the Accessible Icon project was launched with the view of redesigning the symbol to “display an active, engaged image with focus on the person with disability.”

While still retaining its iconic blue and white colour scheme, as well as person in a wheelchair, the modified ISA showcases the person as ‘active’ rather than passive – something that was critical for the project, representing people with disability as actively engaged and not passive passengers.

While certainly an improvement, there is still an argument amongst the disability community that the modified ISA does not equally represent everyone.

I’m lucky: my disability is quite literally represented in the symbol itself. But not everyone has a disability that’s visible, and that can create some tension with wider society. Think about the time you’ve seen what looks like an abled body person walking from their car after parking in a disability spot. Be honest, what was your initial reaction?

The thing is, there are more people living with disability than you realise. That’s because, of the 4.4 million Australians living with disability, an overwhelming 90% of them are deemed invisible disabilities³ – i.e. they aren’t easily identifiable by the naked eye. Think autism, hearing impairments, mental illness and the like.

How do you think people living with invisible disability feel about the ISA? It’s probably fair to understand that don’t feel totally represented.

Which brings me back to the re-design competition. How exciting it will be to see a fresh and new take on what disability looks like. While the modification only happened seven years ago, the world has grown so much since then and I feel wider society’s attitudes towards the disability community has grown leaps and bounds.

While seemingly minor, the re-design competition is a fantastic conversation starter on the topic of representation, and I think truly reflects where we’re at in the world right now.

I’d LOVE to know: what symbol do YOU feel best represents people with disability? Hit me up on social media and send me your designs or inspirations! Better yet, why not submit your own design to the competition – CHECK IT OUT HERE

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nick smith
nick smith
16 de nov. de 2023


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