Question: Our accessibility coordinator says a directive prohibits using a more modern wheelchair logo on signage. If that’s correct, why? -- Raymond, New York
Answer: Your coordinator is (mostly) correct.
Created in 1968 through a Rehabilitation International design competition and incorporated by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) into ISO 7001 (Graphic Symbols – Public Information Symbols), the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA) has been the globally accepted icon for accessibility for almost 50 years.
The independent, non-governmental ISO works with more than 160 countries to develop voluntary, consensus-based standards. Thus, the design reflects extensive analysis by, and the consensus of, technical experts. It’s a universal symbol that anyone, particularly those with poor vision or cognitive impairment, can easily interpret and act on anywhere in the world.
Time for an update?
The design was tweaked early on (for example, the original lacked a head), but has remained virtually unchanged.
In July 2014, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law requiring New York City to use a slightly different design when replacing old signs and installing new ones. It was developed by local artists who want the public, more than two decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law, to reconsider disability rights and what the concept means. In the new logo, the figure in the wheelchair is leaning forward to connote movement.
“Our symbol speaks to the general primacy of personhood,” Sara Hendren told The Washington Post. “The original logo’s rectilinear geometry doesn’t show the organic body moving through space, like the rest of the standard isotype icons you see in public space.”
Other cities and states are using the redesign, which you can download for free from the Accessible Icon Project.
It’s possible to use a different logo IF it meets relevant ADA and Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) requirements. In some cases, the ISA may be required even if local or state code allows or requires a different logo.
ADA standards require the ISA be used to signify accessible spaces and elements in places of public accommodation, commercial facilities, state and local government facilities, and vehicles used in public transit systems. A different logo is allowed only if it provides “substantially equivalent or greater accessibility and usability.” If someone challenges the logo in court, the burden of proof is on you to prove that it does.
Transit agencies can ask the U.S. DOT to decide if a design meets the “equivalent facilitation” provision as outlined in Part 37.7 and Part 37.9 in the link above.
ABA standards apply to facilities designed, built, or altered with federal funds or leased by federal agencies and requires the U.S. Access Board to approve changes. Waivers are rare.
On March 27, 2017, the Access Board released guidance designed to clear up confusion about alternative logos.
Those who are interested in implementing an alternative symbol are encouraged to contact ISO’s Technical Committee 145 on Graphic Symbols.
One last thing
By the way, the above applies only to official accessible designations. Designs for celebrations or for businesses and non-profit organizations don’t have to incorporate the ISA.
For example, my company’s logo, which I designed, shows a wheelchair holding a banner that says “ABLE.”