I hate the International Symbol of Access (ISA). That symbol that is intended to indicate spaces built to accommodate disabled people. It has however fundamentally failed to promote the accessibility that it meant to signify. If anything it has fostered misunderstandings both outside of and within the disability community. The symbol is tellingly often referred to as “The Wheelchair Symbol” and that is unfortunately what far too many people–disabled people included–seem to think it refers to, wheelchair users.
The ISA was and is intended to be generic in reference. It is supposed to be a symbol of access for disabled people. It is not supposed to prioritize or define which needs are accommodated. It is as much for me, an ambulatory part-time mobility aid (a bioness L300 or an AFO) using person or any other embodiment of disability as it is for wheelchair users. Unfortunately, people often look at that image as a guide for who it is intended to benefit. People think the symbol is prescriptive and thus privilege wheelchair users not only in who they consider when they determine what accessibility looks like but also in who they think gets to claim the symbol as representative of themselves.
Nonwheelchair using disabled people absolutely experience discrimination because cultural understandings of disability tend to at the very least require some visible marker of disability of which a wheelchair is often the most recognizable. People who require accessible services but don’t match that cultural image experience judgement and cruelty. People feel righteous and justified in their discriminatory behaviour. They think they are protecting “the truly disabled”.
More recently the ISA has found itself at the centre of a debate about disability representation online. The ISA is the only clearly disability specific emoji available in an ever-expanding selection.
With the latest apple update in emoji again left out any emojis for disability leaving people wondering why there are a plethora of emojis for mystical creatures but the only emoji available to encompass all disability is the ISA. There are no real wheelchair using emoji much less cane using emoji or BiPAP using emoji or really anything that represents the diversity of the disabled experience.
Some outsiders have suggested that we should rely on those mythical creatures that abound in the emoji catalogue to create the nuance that the ISA lacks
We ought apparently resign ourselves to metaphors. Metaphors that also carry the baggage of monstrosity and fear.
Zombies are a scourge that as they shamble along to threaten the dominant parts of society.
Merfolk may have been sanitized by Disney but they were once fearful creatures who lured sailing men to their deaths.
The debate gets worse when disabled people buy into it and suggest that nonwheelchair using people should be further alienated from the ISA by suggesting that it really is only for wheelchair users and that its use by others could be offensive.
The very act of asking this question is problematic and feeds the broader cultural belief that the ISA really does just mean wheelchair users. And as we have no viable alternative, that narrative further marginalizes and delegitimizes the people who are very much disabled but don’t look like what people expect a disabled person to look like.
Attempts have been made to update the ISA. The most enduring of which is simply an updated version of the original.
It maintains the same issues as its predecessor. Its primary appeal is that it is a less passive image but it still tries to encompass disability with the wheelchair so it is just as misleading.
There are of course more specific access symbols such as symbols which indicate the availability of braille, sign language interpretation or closed captioning.
I have seen some suggest that the current ISA should be replaced with a tableaux of all of the accessibility symbols but this too falls short. They still leave people out and might give nondisabled people the false idea that they have a more complete understanding of what disability is or at least which disabilities count.
The primary problem is that people do not understand what disability looks like and by extension that accessibility needs extend beyond the needs of wheelchair users.
I tend to be a bit jaded in my ability to have faith in the ability of nondisabled people to clue into the reality that they have been comfortably ignoring forever, so I used to believe that we really needed to find that magical symbol that would spell it out for them.
As a result, when a guest speaker in one of my graduate classes suggested replacing the ISA with a more generic symbol of an A to symbolize access I initially balked at the idea. I have since come around to either an A or at least something as vague.
I have come to realize that not only is the existence of an all encompassing symbol impossible. Looking for one just caters to the blissful ignorance of the people who use the ISA to justify defining who deserves access.
It’s time to force them to take responsibility for their ignorance and hopefully learn something in the process.
That is not to say that more specific symbols don’t have their place. It will always be helpful in informing people what specific services and accommodations are available but it would be helpful if people outside of the individuals those symbols benefit were aware that they do not encompass the entirety of access needs.
Embracing vagueness in an update of the ISA forces people to ask questions about why the change happened and reconsider what it means to be disabled and what that looks like. It might also make people wonder why the only thing we’ve had to represent to totality of disability for decades is that stick figure in a wheelchair.
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