Friday, 14 November 2014

Access All Areas: International Access Symbol

International Access Symbol (white wheelchair symbol on a blue background) created with crochet by Jodiebodie using a freeform technique to create the shapes and finished with a white crab stitch border.
My crocheted access symbol
with a white crab stitch border
This is the International Symbol for Access for people with disabilities; all disabilities whether visible or invisible; not just for people who use wheelchairs.

This symbol is no stranger to controversy and it has made the news again this year because it is undergoing a transformation, sparking renewed debate.

Strangely, the International Access Symbol has something in common with 'yarnbombing'; i.e. a guerilla movement has taken it to heart.

Some people think that the International Access Symbol needs 'updating' and in some jurisdictions, the authorities are legislating to do just that.

I have links to a number of articles that provide detailed discussion but will summarise the main arguments here for you. If they spark your interest, please follow the links as the articles will provide more background and reasoning behind the opinions.

I want to bring everyone's attention to these issues but don't want to 're-invent the wheel' (I thought that was as suitable a pun as any!) when it has been explained so eloquently elsewhere.  

I am also mindful that a list of links can be rather meaningless on its own and not everybody wants to be sent off to myriad sites, unless they are particularly interested. Thus a quick mention of the different points of view.

My crocheted international access symbol (white wheelchair symbol on a blue background)  without a border. I used a freeform technique to create the shapes.
My crocheted access symbol
without a border
By the way, before I get to the topical discussion, do you like my crocheted version of the Disability Access Symbol?

This is my attempt at 'freeform' crochet; starting off at the 'wheel' and working outwards from there.

My crochet mate Adrienne was astounded–not at any amazing talent or anything–and asked "Why?"

"Why do it that way?  Why not create a grid and make the symbol that way?"

"Because that would be too easy!"

I like a challenge. One of crochet's strengths is that it not only goes in rows like knitting, but it can go around in circles as well very elegantly and easily.  If the main feature of the symbol is a circle, I am going to use the circular nature of crochet to make it.

One of these days I will try again using the grid method, just for the sake of it, to compare results.

So what's going on with the International Access Symbol?

In September 2013 a bunch of American designers were working on the "Accessible Icon Project" and decided that the access symbol needed to be more 'dynamic'.  Damon Rose in his BBC News article (2013) asks the questions, "Is It Time for a New Wheelchair Access Icon?"  and  "Does the current symbol present too passive an image of people with disabilities?"

This article shows the proposed new 'dynamic' design which has been overlaid onto existing International Access Symbols as a form of 'guerilla art' (a bit like yarnbombing!) on the campus of Gordon College near Boston (USA) to "get people thinking".  You will find the reasoning behind this explained in this article.

The new design, named "Accessible Icon" is currently on display at New York City's Museum of Modern Art until February 2015 as part of the exhibition, "A Collection of Ideas" (Disability Scoop 2014).

Comparison of two disability access symbols Left: current symbol widely in use Right: newly proposed 'active' symbol. The new symbol has the wheelchair user leaning forward with the arms poised behind to imply movement (self-propulsion).
Comparison of two disability access symbols
Left: current symbol widely in use
Right: newly proposed 'active' symbol

Many people feel that the new style of symbol is "more positive, and less passive, than the existing sign and it therefore challenges lazy perceptions of the disabled held by the able bodied" as explained by James Moore in his article, "Should Britain Look at Introducing a More Dynamic Wheelchair Sign?" (The Independent 2014). 

The new symbol has grabbed the attention of authorities in other jurisdictions; e.g. New York City and Britain.

It has also grabbed the attention of those who feel that using a wheelchair to symbolise disability access is not inclusive of all people with disabilities and serves to encourage the "perception that you must need a wheelchair if you have an impairment". 

This ignores the needs of those who have impairments to other functions such as those with vision-impairments, deafness, autism and other 'less visible' conditions that may not require mobility aids at all and yet the impairments are significant enough to cause disability and require equity of access.

One confusing example is a pamphlet from the New Zealand Department of Building and Housing which defines the symbol as representing "all disabilities" but then goes on to define it as only representing those people with disabilities "whose mobility is restricted". 

Amongst wheelchair users themselves, the 'dynamic' symbol is cause for debate about whether it is a suitable representation for those who do not self-propel or have lower levels of physical independence.  Some people feel that they are relatively passive in their wheelchairs due to their disability so what's wrong with the current 'passive' symbol anyway?

Others like Dan Wilkins of 'The Nth Degree' blog have real problems with the International Access Symbol which are explained in this blog post, "Thoughts on the International Access Symbol".  He would like to discard the wheelchair symbol altogether and replace it with something more inclusive.

The design podcast '99% Invisible' (Episode 102) has varied discussion about the International Access Symbol and the proposed changes in the context of universal standards and changing politics. The audio is also transcribed.

What's my opinion?

Personally, I feel it is a symbol and it is just that.  It was never intended to have gender or other personal attributes or actions attached to it like 'movement', 'independence' 'passivity' or 'action'.  

It was never meant to represent one standard condition of disability but to symbolise access and equity for all people with disabilities, regardless of whether they use a wheelchair or not. 
International deafness symbol depicting an ear in white and a white diagonal stripe on a blue background.
International deafness symbol

I quite like having multiple symbols for specific disabilities such as the 'Deafness' symbol.  

It just happens that a wheelchair is the most obvious and ubiquitous sign of disability in the world at the moment. That is why it was chosen to be an international symbol.

The bigger issue is that of education. We need to educate society about all types of disability and why we need to provide equity and access to people with disabilities. 

Judging by the number of drivers illegally parking without a permit in disability parking bays (marked with the access symbol), it is obvious that more awareness is necessary. I am frustrated by the ignorance of society at large about 'invisible' disabilities. Remember the catchphrase: Check out the permit not the person!

Once the world is educated about the meaning of the International Access Symbol, I hope there will be no need to have arguments about what the symbol should look like so we can get on with actually providing real equity in a truly inclusive society.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could live in a world where
we don't even need these symbols at all?

The designers of the new symbol wanted to "use a visual work to spark discussion about what disability means in society" and have succeeded. Please feel free to continue the discussion here on Lupey Loops. Comments and emails are welcome.

Your thoughts?


Access Australia, "International Symbol of Access (ISA)", PO Box 88 Pacific Palms NSW 2428:

Australian Human Rights Commission, "Access: Guidelines and Information" [online publication], April 2008:

Doctorow, Cory, "New York City Adopts New International Symbol of Access" 25 May 2013, Boing Boing [web-zine]:

Heasley, Shaun, "New 'Handicapped' Symbol Featured at Museum of Modern Art", 6 March 2014, Disability Scoop
This article, mainly about the design itself, had a great response; well worth a read of the comments which include a response from an Accessible Icon team member.

Mars, Roman, "Icon for Access", 18 February 2014, Episode 102, 99% Invisible [podcast] (16'41"):
Roman Mars outlines the history and development of the International Access Symbol and explains individual design elements in detail.

Moore, James, "Should Britain Look at Introducing a More Dynamic Wheelchair Sign?",  19 June 2014, The Independent [newspaper], UK:

Mort, Mike, "Reclaiming the Accessibility Logo",

26 November 2015, Disabled Identity [blog]:
Mike Mort has updated the accessibility symbol to depict comic book, film, television, video-game and pop-culture icons. See them on his blog and read about his rationale in this article.

Murphy, Brendán, "Access Symbol":
One designer's interpretation of the access synbol.

New Zealand Department of Building and Housing, Wellington, New Zealand, 2007:
This document shows the correct proportions of the International Access Symbol. 

Ober, Lauren, "Does the International Wheelchair Symbol Need a Redesign?", 19 February 2014, Slate's Design Blog, 'The Eye', Slate [web magazine], USA:

This is a cross-posting of Roman Mars' "Icon for Access" podcast and transcription.

R.I. Global, "Symbol of Access", Rehabilitation International [web site], USA:

Rose, Damon, "Is It Time for a New Wheelchair Access Icon?", 21 September 2013, BBC News [web site]:
This article introduces the Accessible Icon Project and explains the symbolism of the new design.

Wade, Lisa, "Disability Rights and the International Symbol of Accessibility", 19 February 2013, The Society Pages, Dept. of Sociology, University of Minnesota, USA: 
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post, 21 February 2013, USA:

Wilkins, Dan, "Thoughts on the International Access Symbol", The Nth Degree [blog], USA:
This writer 'gets it'.  He discusses disability culture and access for all sorts of disabilities. I love the way Dan Wilkins identifies 'attitudinal' access as well as 'architectural' access. My own experience is that attitudinal barriers are worse than physical ones.

"How a Guerilla Art Project Gave Birth to NYC's New Wheelchair Symbol", Fast  Company [online magazine]:
This article discusses the development of the project and includes photographs of different designs on the drawing board.


  1. Such an interesting, thought-provoking post, Jodie. I like your pattern as well!

    1. Thanks Stel. How are you going? I hope you are settled and life is treating you well.

      I have been meaning to post this topic since June when it made the news again but haven't had the opportunity to sit down and put it all together until now. If you found these ideas interesting, have a look at some of the links.

      I am happy to share the pattern if you want to try it out. It isn't perfect, but it has served a purpose for the meantime. I hope to play around with it some more. This one was not based on any pattern; just the idea to start with the circle and go from there!

  2. It will be very difficult to please everyone. Your crocheted symbol is excellent.

    1. Thanks Gillian, I am glad you like the crocheted symbol. I made it to illustrate my Access All Areas posts but now I have my own portable, soft, friendly (and washable!) access symbol, I am wondering about other ways to display it or use it.
      As for a consensus on the symbol design, of course it will be impossible to please everybody entirely, but as for its purpose, I think it is instantly recognisable just the way it is nowadays. However I did get cross at a local supermarket on the weekend where I could not easily identify the access car parking bays because the supermarket coloured them lime green (with a white symbol) instead of blue!?! Obviously the notions of colour contrast and standards are totally lost on the designers and management of that supermarket (and I wonder whether they meet legal requirements).

  3. Hi Jodie! I like your crochet version, it is very creative! And I don't think there is anything wrong with having the symbols themselves, particularly if they are used in a helpful way, such as highlighting that there is access for disabled/wheelchair users and pointing them in the right direction.
    Have a nice sunday!!!
    Ingrid xx

    1. Thanks Ingrid, I certainly felt very creative as I was experimenting with the design. It was fun.
      I agree that an instantly recognisable symbol is extremely helpful, especially when I am in a new and unfamiliar place. It certainly helps the navigation. It is also helpful as long as members of the public realise that the symbol represents 'disability' in general, and not just wheelchair users. Sadly, some people think that the symbol is for wheelchair users only. The result is that people with genuine (and significant) disabilities have been questioned in the streets for using disability access parking because they do not have any mobility equipment or other outward signs of disability. The public needs to realise that MOST disabilities are invisible. "Check out the permit, not the person" is a favourite slogan of mine.