The international symbol of access or the wheelchair symbol (♿) was designed by Susanne Koefoed in 1968 and revealed to the world at a design conference in Dublin the following year. The motivation behind the design was to generate a renewed awareness of differently-abled people, which coincided with the social movements of the late 1960s. The ISA is now one of the most recognisable symbols in history, as widely used as currency signs and religious motifs.
In 2014, a revised version of the international symbol of access was submitted which shows a more energetic version of the wheelchair-bound figure as a reaction to the original static symbol. The revision was considered a more culturally sensitive depiction of disability and is becoming more commonly used, thanks to designers from groups like The Accessible Icon Project.
Recently I was designing for a project that needed to include special assistance. We needed to show hearing loss, vision impairment and varying degrees of mobility disabilities. I searched through my icon libraries to include in the visual design and a strange feeling of guilt hit me as I scrolled through the vectors. I pulled myself together, blamed excessive political correctness for my sudden feelings of guilt but had to ask myself if I was okay with the icons suggested to represent disability.
A hearing loss icon had an ear with a diagonal line through it. Is this okay?
A vision impairment icon had an eye with a diagonal line through the pupil. Is this okay?
A mobility disability icon had wheelchairs or figures sadly bent over a walking frame. Is this okay?
The alternative to these icons are abstract interpretations like a seeing eye dog for vision impaired, a ramp sign for mobility and hands doing sign language for hearing impaired (which look more like gang signs to me). Funnily enough, some of these disability icon sets even included baby icons!
It’s obvious that the representation of disability in visual communications is confused, archaic and sometimes condescending. Rather than illustrating how capable people with disabilities are, designers culturally show them as a hindrance. The world has moved past forcing groups into negative moulds but the design world has been left behind in this instance. The catch-22 of using disability icons is they’re very recognisable but using them can perpetuate nasty stereotypes that society is trying to eliminate.
I’m no social activist but I think if you’re faced with potentially unethical design dilemmas, you should avoid them.
In the real life design example I mentioned, we ended up removing the icons entirely. The risk of marginalising a group of users was a bigger issue than whether we should use icons in this context. Design should work for everyone, regardless of their personal background.