Project 10: the history of the disability Symbol

 Symbols 2 (4 of 34)

Last week’s attempt to explore brands and symbols didn’t really work. The brands said nothing about disability or impairment and took the viewer’s eye away of the treatment I had applied to the symbols. So I decided to concentrate on the symbols.

As a wheelchair user one particular symbol has a key resonance: that is the international symbols of access. Because much of the socially constructed physical environment does not recognise the access needs of wheelchair users “special” points of access have been created to partially accommodate for our needs and provide at least some limited admittance to public life. But whereas the symbol is really an icon as it is recognisable as its referent (wheelchair users) is truly has become a symbol as it now is used as a sign to refer to any and all special forms of physical access.

The history of how this particular symbol – the International Symbol of Access (ISA) – came into being has been documented by Ben‐Moshe & Powell (2007) and I have summarised their points below. The ISA has become ubiquitous throughout the world within just a few decades;

1. The ISA has changed across time and space but the meaning within the system remains;

2. ISA is a cultural sign with particular meanings;

3. Thus, the symbol is of interest because it allows signification of an abstraction like ‘accessibility’ that has consequences for citizenship and participatory rights.

The winning access symbol design was created by Susanne Koefoed in 1968 and the modified final official symbol was copyrighted by ICTA and is regulated by ISO 7001:1990 (The first symbol as never widely used as during Committee discussions a head was added because it was felt that without it the symbol could give an impression of a monogram of letters.)

image image

However even though there is an international standard for the disability access symbol there are many slight variations like this one below.

 Symbols 2 (1 of 34)

The symbol signifies those with special status. This status can either be seen to offer: concessions – eg parking – as a way of ameliorating the disabling effects of the built environment; or benefits – eg free car parking where non-disabled people pay. And therein lies the symbol’s paradox: is it one and the same time a symbol that is helpful to me while also reminding me of my second class status because designers and builders of public spaces, utilities and transport systems do not always take my needs into account and the recent legislation in the UK is patchy in its application and usefulness.

My plans for this project
I want to explore different ways of re-presenting the symbol in relation to reality; by giving it personality; by exploring its impact via presentation and scale; exploring it in relation to colour values; and exploring it in terms of context.

Lets see how I get on.






Liat Ben‐Moshe & Justin J.W. Powell (2007) Sign of our times? Revis(it)ing the International Symbol of Access, Disability & Society, 22:5, 489-505, Published by Routledge, To link to this article:

About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
This entry was posted in Project 10: Symbolism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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