The Wheelchair Icon Discussion

Is it time to update the International Symbol of Access to represent all the special needs that need accommodations?

Over the last decade, the global community has made great progress in the recognition of special needs. Whether it’s Autism, Down Syndrome or ALS, few can argue that people are less aware of special needs than they were a decade ago.

And sometimes as a society we need to revisit how we represent these needs in our words and symbols to reflect culture today. Brands do it all the time. Coca-Cola has changed its logo eight times since 1886; Pepsi eleven times. Even new companies like Instagram changed their logo in the first decade.

The icon on the Disabled parking permit logo is the International Symbol of Access (ISA), also known as the (International) Wheelchair Symbol. It was designed by Danish design student, Susanne Koefoed, in 1968.

The current icon is probably one of the most recognized symbols in the world (and ISO 7011 standard). It is also one of the greatest examples of an icon that needs changing today.

Who is actually eligible for a Disabled/Handicap Parking Permit?

Let’s first say you don’t need to use a wheelchair to get a permit.

This is a critical point.

With a symbol that looks like a wheelchair as part of the icon, it implies that you have a physical walking disability.

This post is not intended to undermine the importance of ensuring accessibility for those with a walking disability or who are in wheelchairs. It’s just pointing out that the current icon insinuates a physical walking disability is the only one covered, and that’s simply not true.

Is it a wheelchair in the icon?

It’s important to note that the wheel cutout is simply that. A wheel. Not a wheelchair.

I understand that completely. But it is still hard not to think of a wheelchair when looking at this icon and, again, you don’t need a physical walking disability to be approved for a pass in many states.

My son has autism. He walks fine. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t fall into the permissible categories for application and be approved. It would mean, however, that now we would have a permit with what looks like a wheelchair on it. I would imagine even my son would ask, “Daddy, why are we parking in the wheelchair spot?”

On one hand, it shows the incredible success of this icon—a level of success many brands would kill for. On the other hand, it shows why we need to change or modify it.

If you are a parent of a child with special needs, you can apply for a special parking permit in many states, even if your child can walk.

In New York, for example, on Form MV6641, the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles Application for a Parking Permit or License Plates for Persons with Severe Disabilities, an applicant doesn’t have to indicate they use a wheelchair. They can apply under these conditions:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment or condition not listed above which constitutes an equal degree of disability, and which imposes unusual hardship in the use of public transportation and prevents the person from getting around without great difficulty?

Where does it say the applicant needs a wheelchair?

Let’s think about this for a moment. Your child can walk, yet the government decides to label them with a permit that visually looks like it has a wheelchair on it. Again, I get that it’s not supposed to be a wheelchair, but a wheel.

Social Stigma

With that said, I understand we live in a society where social media has magnified the power of almost any issue. Whether it’s race, age, sex, religion, or something else, not everyone will be on board, and not everything can be changed.

One solution could be to create another symbol altogether to identify non-walking disabilities for people who need similar accommodations in life.

The current International Symbol of Access is powerful and successful. However, it is a visual sign that reinforces a social stigma. And persons and/or families of special needs should never have to defend the reason they get to park in a space. Neither should they be judged by strangers who don’t understand the laws of who gets to receive a special needs parking permit.

I am going to keep using the phrase “special needs” here since I refuse to call them handicap or disabled parking permits.

The current icon justifies a social stigma and that is my biggest issue with it. In fact, before becoming a special needs parent, I actually thought you needed a wheelchair to get one… because it has (the look of) a wheelchair as part of the icon.

Some Change Has Been Made

In 2013, Sara Hendren and Brian Glenney co-founded the Accessible Icon project, designing a new icon that displays an active, engaged image with focus on the person with the disability. The new proposed symbol was met with some debate (as almost everything always is), but ultimately is now used in the states of New York and Connecticut, and elsewhere around the world. It also has a spot in the permanent collection of MOMA, The Museum of Modern Art.

Change doesn’t happen unless people know what they are trying to change. From the Water Bucket Challenge for ALS to Movember for Men’s Health, there is no doubt the level of awareness for special needs and causes is growing. This seems like the perfect time to look at our icons again.

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Alan Dunn

A dad who simply wants to be the best he can. It doesn't get any simpler than that. Oh, and I love domain names, starbucks and sarcasm.
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