International Accessibility Symbol: When What You See Changes How You See

William and I walked to our local library a few days ago. I pointed to the painted symbol on the pavement in front of us that designated which spots would be reserved for people with some sort of physical disability. I said, “Do you remember what that sign used to look like?”

He gave me a quizzical look and said, “I know this is for people who use wheelchairs or canes or something like that.”

I described the international accessibility symbol I had grown up with: a stationary figure in a wheelchair who seemed to be sitting passively. 

But in front of us was the only symbol William could ever remember seeing: 

international accessibility symbol

Rather than a passive figure, it conveys active participation, mobility, and energy. It portrays engagement with the built world. 

My guest on the podcast this week, Sara Hendren, helped to design this symbol. It’s a slight shift of design that changes the way we imagine possibilities for people using wheelchairs. 

On the podcast this week, and in her brilliant book about the way the world welcomes or rebuffs us as we seek to navigate it, Sara shares other stories of similar shifts—in language, in architecture, in imagery—that can also shift the way people are received into the world. She contrasts “hearing loss” with “deaf gain,” for example. She notes the way “curb cuts” on sidewalks have expanded the range of people who can get to work in any large city. She describes countless individuals who have used technology and ingenuity to design a world that allows for a greater range of human flourishing. 

Because of this new international accessibility symbol, my children have grown up with a different daily image representing people living with various physical disabilities. And I’m grateful for the ways Sara’s work has invited me to see the built world differently.

To learn more with Amy Julia in thinking about disability and the built world and belonging:

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