The Evolution of the International Symbol of Access

Okay, so this post isn’t about a word per se, but I’m willing to stretch the purview of the Word Blog for a day, so I can share the evolution of the International Symbol of Access (ISA) with you. The ISA is part of a language read daily all over the globe: the language of ISO 7001 pictograms.


Unlike most languages and unlike the pictograms in most furniture-assembly instructions, the ISO 7001 pictograms have been carefully crafted to be quickly and easily  understood by almost everyone. They use very specific high-contrast colour schemes and line widths to represent all sorts of pressing health, safety, and travel concerns. But as carefully crafted as they are, even this language needs to evolve as the culture changes around it, which brings us to the ISA.

Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren of the Accessible Icon Project started looking hard at the existing ISA about 5 years ago, and what they saw was an image of mechanical passivity. The focus is on the chair. The person in it looks almost a part of it. Is that the chair’s back or the person’s, the person’s arms or the chair’s? Without the head at the top of the symbol, we might never know the chair was occupied at all. Glenney and Hendren were troubled by the inert qualities of the sign and the societal assumptions it inadvertently reinforced about people with disabilities. So they decided to make a new symbol of their own.

They began by making stickers of their new symbol and applying them over existing signage to make people rethink the symbol they’d grown accustomed to. As reported in Fast Company’s Co.Design, it started as a guerrilla art project, an effort to get viewers to rethink their assumptions. But it quickly became much more than that. People who saw the new symbols recognized the improvement—this new sign shows a person using a chair, not just occupying it. The new sign shows action and agency.

New ISA Symbol

The road from first concept to finished ISO 7001–compliant symbol involved a lot of iterations (which you can read about at Co.Design), but the new symbol has all the readability any word could want and has evolved to better reflect our culture. Like any other word or sign, it doesn’t speak to everyone—it’s been rightly pointed out that the image of a person in a wheelchair doesn’t visually represent all people with disabilities, but it goes much further to reflecting their agency and personhood than did the old sign. For these reasons the new sign has been met with enthusiasm and adoption of the sign is spreading quickly. For instance, as areas of New York City that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy are repaired, this new sign will be used to replace the old.

For more information about the evolution of the new ISA, check out the stories linked to from the Accessibility Icon Project’s Press page.

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