Does the International Symbol of Accessibility Misrepresent the Disabled Population?


As an accessibility consultant, I interact on a daily basis with a multitude of associates responsible for the built environment. These design professionals include developers, architects, engineers, contractors, code officials, and facility managers. The topics we address cover a broad range of disability issues related to architecture and urban planning around disability codes and laws. However, in my consulting efforts a common fundamental assumption exists among design professionals. Designers forget that individuals with disabilities are not strictly limited to people using wheelchairs. This fundamental assumption, while supported by the International Symbol of Accessibility (depicting a person in a wheelchair, See Figure 1), hinders accessibility compliance and creates an environment that lacks inclusiveness for all. This leads me to believe the International Symbol of Accessibility misrepresents the disabled population.

Figure 1

US Federal laws define a person with a disability as “Any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment.” Major life activities include walking, talking, hearing, seeing, breathing, learning, performing manual tasks, and caring for oneself. Types of disabilities are limitless and even mobility disabilities don’t always require the use of a wheelchair.

When incorporating accessible features designers must remember that accessibility requirements address a wide range of users and disabilities. Though the laws and codes do heavily lean towards individuals with mobility disabilities, they generally cover a broad spectrum of people such as individuals with communication disabilities, people of short stature, those who use canes or crutches, and people who have difficulty bending or stooping.

When design professionals exclude the disabled population outside of wheelchair users they hinder accessibility compliance through the built environment. Consider an existing building with levels not connected by an accessible route such as an elevator. Inaccessible levels, possibly with steps, still require accessible features. Wheelchair users might not have access to levels not on an accessible route, but individuals with other disabilities who can overcome steps will surely take advantage of accessible features on inaccessible levels. Turning space at accessible toilet rooms is another example to consider. While a turning space is required inside all accessible toilet facility, sometimes existing structural and sites constraints prohibit this feature. However, toilet rooms not provided with a turning radius still require other accessible fixtures to the maximum extent possible. Once again, a wheelchair user might not have access or might have difficulties maneuvering inside a toilet facility without turning space, however, people with other disabilities can still take advantage of other accessible features inside the room. In both these common examples, designers not considering a full range of disabilities often fall short of accessibility compliance when they forget not everyone with a disability uses a wheelchair.

By focusing on wheelchair users we create an environment that lacks inclusiveness for everyone. When discussing accessible features with design professionals and their clients, I often hear claims that wheelchair users never frequent their facilities. Some examples include claims that wheelchair user never rent from the residential building in question, don’t shop at the retail establishment scheduled for alteration, or can’t work at the office facility being proposed. This may be due to the fact that the facility as it currently exists is not accessible to people with disabilities. However, when we broaden our scope to all individuals with disabilities, we see the definition of a disability can encompasses a greater range of people than those individuals in wheelchairs. The disability population is one of the largest minority groups in the county. Business owners or designers often assume establishments are not frequented by disabled patrons but in fact while they might not be used by wheelchair users they are almost certainly used by the disabled population whose disability might not be as obvious. When designers perceive the codes and laws as only regulating design for wheelchair users, they stop short of understanding that compliant accessible design is for everyone.

The International Symbol of Accessibility might very well misrepresent the disabled population but it does successfully identify accessible architectural features in the built environment. Which means it is up to design professionals to remember that the symbol represents a broad range of users and not always just those using a wheelchair. Keep in mind there are other symbols often used to designate accessible features. The symbol for assisted listening systems (ALS, See Figure 2) is necessary when ALSs are required in assembly areas where audible communication is integral to the use of the space. The symbol for a Telephone Typewriter (TTY, See Figure 3) is necessary when TTYs are required when four or more public pay telephones are provided at a bank of telephones.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Designers who forget that individuals with disabilities are not strictly limited to people using wheelchairs hinder accessibility compliance and contribute to an environment that lacks inclusiveness for all. While I do not think we can change the International Symbol of Accessibility any time soon, I do think we can change the perception among design professionals that individuals with disabilities are not strictly limited to people using wheelchairs.

Jimmy Zuehl is an Architectural Specialist at Accessibility Services a program of United Spinal Association. Contact Jimmy Zuehl at 718-803-3782, Ext. 7505 or