The search for a better accessibility symbol is solving the wrong design problem

Alex Haagaard
Apr 25, 2017 · 7 min read
Four blue equilateral triangles with rounded corners and thin white borders pointing downward against a black background. From left to right they contain the following icons in white: The International Symbol of Deaf & HOH, a person using a wheelchair, the infinity symbol representing neurodiversity, and the spoon representing the chronic illness community.

Apparently people in the province of Ontario are once again campaigning for a new accessibility symbol, this time focusing on getting the government to officially adopt the Modified ISA. This is mildly exhausting because if we’re going to pursue a new accessibility symbol[ogy], it should probably be one that’s inclusive. And, dare I say, one where design has been led by disabled designers who not only have a holistic and immersive understanding of accessibility, but who are also familiar with the nuances of disability iconography and representation.

To that end, the accessibility symbol is something I’ve been thinking about for several years. What might an inclusive accessibility symbol look like? The major design problem here is, how do you make an icon that represents such a huge, diverse community? Moreover, from the perspective of accessibility, how do you represent a huge, diverse community whose access needs may often in fact conflict with one another?

Considered from this perspective, the very idea of having a single accessibility symbol is necessarily exclusive, because it suggests that there is a single way for things to be ‘fully accessible’:

https://twitter.com/Eremitpurpur/status/856054533000220672

What is needed instead is an iconography of accessibility that reflects and describes the many different ways in which we can and must approach access and inclusion.

So here’s my idea:

Five blue equilateral triangles with rounded corners and thin white borders against a black background, pointing downward. On the left side of the image is one large, blank Blue Triangle. On the right side of the image is an array of four triangles with icons representing a wheelchair user, the International Symbol of Deaf & HOH, a spoon representing chronic illness, and multiple icons for various disabilities.

The (inverted, equilateral) Blue Triangle serves as a base form for the iconography.

It refers back to the Black Triangle which is a historical symbol of the oppression of disabled people — and echoes the powerful reclamation of such symbols by, for example, the gay rights movement, who began using the Pink Triangle as a symbol during the AIDS crisis.

Pink equilateral triangle pointing upward against a black background. Below the triangle, in condensed, all-caps sans-serif font is the text SILENCE=DEATH. This logo was created by activists from ACT UP during the AIDS crisis.

Rendering the triangle in blue rather than the historical black improves legibility and visibility, and refers to the existing and widely recognisable iconography of accessibility.

In addition, rendering the triangle in blue (a colour commonly associated with healthcare) may be read as a reference to the marginalisation of disabled people through practices and rhetorics of medicalisation.

So, the Blue Triangle is legible, easy to render in, for example, digital contexts, and references both existing, recognised iconography and disability history. It serves as a ‘blank slate’ upon which can be placed icons representing particular forms of disability & accessibility.

For example, our well-known wheelchair user icon (with some important modifications):

Equilateral blue triangle with rounded corners and a thin white border against a black background. In the centre is a white icon representing a person using a wheelchair.

As in the Modified ISA this icon shows the user propelling their own chair, as opposed to the traditional ISA which suggests the person is being pushed.

Modified ISA. A blue square with rounded corners and a thin white border. In the centre is an icon representing a person using a wheelchair. Their posture and the position of their arms suggests they are self-propelling very quickly and athletically.
Traditional ISA. A blue square with rounded corners and a thin white border. In the centre is an icon representing a person using a wheelchair. Their arms extend straightforward, suggesting they are being pushed by an attendant.

However, it also rectifies some major problems with the Modified ISA:

  1. The major idea behind the Modified ISA is that the chair user should be portrayed as active, in motion. To my mind, however, the conflation of ‘active’ and ‘in motion’ actually represents a very abled point of view. The Modified ISA draws on a long history of using the aesthetics of athleticism as a shorthand for ‘good’ design for disability. (This is also the reason for the dominant aesthetics of manual wheelchairs from the 1970s onward; a good history is given in Design for Disability by Graham Pullin.) By equating ‘active’ with ‘in motion’ and ‘in motion’ with an apparently very athletic approach to self-propulsion, the Modified ISA excludes those who are weak, tired, immobile. It assumes that those qualities equate to a lack of agency. They don’t. In the alternative icon, the person’s arms are positioned to suggest they are propelling their own chair; however, their posture is a more realistic rendering of most wheelchair users who are not athletes in the midst of competition.
  2. The other major problem I see with the Modified ISA is that it fuses the user to their chair. For some bizarre reason, even though the chair’s wheel is represented with gaps, there is no gap between the user and the chair. Again, this betrays the abled view with which the Modified ISA was created. Any wheelchair user will tell you they are not their chair. Hence, the alternative symbol has a gap between user and chair to represent the fact they are distinct entities. One is a person; one is a tool being used by the person.

Now for other accessibility symbols that can be created with the Blue Triangle! The freedom of a ‘blank slate’ icon is that you can now overlay an icon representing any category of disability or accessibility.

Four equilateral blue triangles with rounded corners and thin white borders against a black background. From left to right, the triangles contain white icons representing: the International Symbol of Deaf & HOH; the infinity symbol representing the neurodiverse community; a spoon angled at 45 degrees with the bowl pointing up and to the right, representing the chronic illness community; three icons representing a wheelchair user, the International Symbol of Deaf & HOH and the infinity symbol.

This is important because not only does it allow for the communication of actual useful information about what types of accessibility and accommodations are available to users, it also forces the business, institution or organisation employing the symbol to more critically consider their accessibility practices.

I want to touch on the infinity and spoon icons in particular because they are more symbolic than representative, and are not widely known outside their communities.

Blue equilateral triangle with rounded corners and thin white border. In the centre is a white lemniscate (infinity symbol), which has been widely adopted by the neurodiverse community.

The infinity symbol has been widely adopted by the neurodiverse community as a representation both of the infinite diversity of neurotypes and as an acknowledgment of the infinite diversity among people who are considered ‘neuroatypical’ —and, by extension, as a rejection of the uniform, medicalised conceptions of neuroatypicality that abled people often have.

Blue equilateral triangle with rounded corners and thin white border. In the centre is a white icon of a spoon angled at 45 degrees, with the bowl pointing up and to the right. The spoon has been widely adopted as a symbol by the chronically ill community.

The spoon has been widely adopted as a symbol of chronic illness by the chronically ill community. Its symbolism derives from a very popular explanation of the lived experience chronic illness written by Christine Miserandino, herself a ‘spoonie’.

The argument that could be made against these is that their non-representationality and their lack of familiarity among the general public makes them user ‘unfriendly’ and could lead to confusion. However, I think these characteristics actually constitute the strengths of these symbols.

Both neurodiversity and chronic illness are largely considered ‘invisible’ (particularly by the abled public). How then, do you go about representing a phenomenon to appeal to an audience who believes that phenomenon to be invisible? It seems far more logical to employ a symbolic approach — and where there are existing symbols, with well-developed links to the concepts and communities they represent, so much the better.

As for their lack of familiarity among the abled public, this offers advantages both from a design activism & from a user-centred design perspective. From a design activism point of view, this means the insertion of heretofore marginalised, disabled culture into mainstream society. From a user-centred design perspective:

a) the primary users of these icons are not the abled public but the communities represented by them;
b) confusion by the abled public should be minimised by the contextualising influencing of the Blue Triangle blank slate icon;
c) any confusion that does result from misinterpretation of an icon by the abled public in fact presents a valuable opportunity for education about the meaning and history of the symbol.

And of course finally, the use of the Blue Triangle as a blank slate for placement of other icons means that multiple icons can be placed upon it to represent instances where multiple types of accessibility are available.

Blue equilateral triangle with rounded corners and a thin white border against a black background. In the centre is a group of three white icons representing a person using a wheelchair, the International Symbol of Deaf & HOH, and the infinity symbol representing the neurodiverse community.

The icons included here are of course not exhaustive of the forms and categories of disability and accessibility. But they may provide a starting point for the creation of a flexible and inclusive iconography that challenges abled conceptions of what disability, access and accommodation mean.

ETA: it has been pointed out that the white infinity symbol on a blue ground is currently used as the symbol of the Métis National Council in Canada.

White infinity symbol against a blue background. Below the symbol in white all-caps sans serif font is the text: Métis National Council / Ralliment National Des Métis

This is an important thing to consider, as any accessibility symbol must not erase the existing iconography of any other marginalised group. Going to ponder how best to re-work that icon, but wanted to note this important point in the meantime.

Disability-led design & health justice. Director of Communications for The Disabled List. They / theirs. Tip jar: paypal.me/alexhaagaard

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