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Differently Abled by Design

Icons like the familiar family bathroom sign reflect cultural norms.
Icons like the familiar family bathroom sign reflect cultural norms.
By Samir H. Durrani

Back held stiffly in place, neck arched forward, and elbows cut off, the International Symbol of Access is due for a makeover. We all identify the white stickfigure, riding a wheelchair in his blue box of a home, as the emblem of the physically disabled.

And when I say “we all,” I mean it literally. Certain designs, including the ISA, signal an identical message across the globe. Every day, Egyptians locate escalators, Dominicans defibrillators, and Fins fire-exits, all thanks to the International Organization for Standardization. The ISO dictates the universal standard for thousands of designs that instantly communicate a service, a hazard, or even an identity.

And society’s understanding of the disabled identity has been colored with prejudice. Ableism, though American society only began to recognize it during the civil rights movement , has plagued this country for centuries. “Ugly laws” criminalized persons with physical disabilities to appear in public. Persons with mental disabilities face a dark history of asylums, imprisonments, and confinement. It’s no surprise, then, that remnants of ableism still lurk in the21st century United States. Well-intentioned people continue to believe that the able-bodied are the norm. Everyday acts perpetuate the idea that the disabled should strive to become able-bodied, that disability is an error rather than an element of diversity, contributing to society as much as any other degree of physical ability.

Everyday symbols—notably the ISA—perpetuate ableism as well. Ramps, parking spots, restrooms, and doors therefore reflect an image that represents the disabled. The Accessible Icon Project, driven by a desire for a more progressive understanding of persons of different ability, takes note of this fact and criticizes the ISA on several counts. While the AIP acknowledges the strides in understanding ability that the development of the ISA represents, they also note the unnatural passivity of the dated design: “Its arms and legs are drawn like mechanical parts, its posture is unnaturally erect, and its entire look is one that makes the chair, not the person, important and visible.”

Guerrilla artists in Cambridge have also contested the ISA by drawing graffiti over the traditional image of the ISA with an updated version, designed to empower persons of different ability. The updated pictogram depicts an active wheelchair user, independent in his own right. The Accessible Icon distinguishes itself from the traditional ISA in five ways.

First, the person’s head leans forward to indicate conscious decision-making. Second, the arm swings back to demonstrate the active nature of wheelchair use. Third, two wheel cutouts present the chairin motion. Fourth, the pictogram’s limbs match up with the body’s representation in ISO symbols depicting the able-bodied. And lastly, the leg position clearly separates the person from the wheelchair.

New York City has replaced the ISA with the Accessible Icon in all five boroughs, according to NPR. So has San Antonio, Williams College, REI, and even Wal-Mart. This is the latest step in the ISA’s evolution: Activist designers updated the ISA once before, adding a head to the formerly decapitated icon.

Designs define and reflect identity. They brief us on the meaning of female, male, African-American, Caucasian, pedestrian, child, adult, and family. They cast back definitions of appropriate behavior and cultural norms. Do white pictograms on wheelchairs in blue squares simply indicate compliance with the American Disability Act? Does the wall separating the male from the female on restroom doors hold cultural significance? How about the clothing those pictograms wear?

Of course. Symbols mean far more than they purport to be. They assume social paradigms and legal standards. Changing design forces bystanders to think, to reassess identity. So rethinking the ISA design isn’t enough. As the ISO considers the Accessibility Icon, the world must consider what the icon represents. Perhaps, with this updated icon, society will considered the issue of ableism, even if just for a moment.

Samir H. Durrani ’17 is a Crimson editorial writer in Straus Hall.

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