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  • Some of the world's most recognizable symbols exist to sell products,

  • others to steer traffic

  • or advance political causes.

  • But there's one whose main purpose is to help people.

  • You may know it as the wheelchair symbol, or a sign for people with disabilities,

  • but its formal title as maintained by the ISO

  • is the International Symbol of Access.

  • But despite its familiarity,

  • many people are unclear as to what the symbol actually means,

  • which has a lot to do with the symbol itself and the way it came about.

  • In 1968, the International Commission on Technology and Accessibility

  • held a design contest.

  • They were looking for a symbol

  • that would be readily identifiable from a reasonable distance,

  • self-descriptive,

  • simple,

  • practical,

  • and couldn't be confused with existing signage.

  • The winning design, which didn't have a head,

  • was created by a Danish designer named Susanne Koefed.

  • The addition of a head a year later gave it a more human form,

  • and within ten years,

  • it was endorsed by both the United Nations and the ISO.

  • With minimal cost and minimal fuss, a global icon was born.

  • There have been a few tweaks over the decades.

  • The Graphic Artists Guild added more rounded, human-like features,

  • and in 2012, the Accessible Icon Project produced a more dynamic version.

  • But what does it really represent?

  • What's its purpose?

  • Put simply, it's a sign to identify where there are accessible facilities.

  • The strength of such an internationally recognized image

  • is that wherever you travel,

  • you don't need to speak the language or have in-depth cultural knowledge.

  • If you require an accessible toilet, the sign shows the way.

  • But the confusion comes from the term accessibility

  • and what that actually means.

  • Many people assume that because the symbol depicts a wheelchair,

  • that accessible facilities are meant only for people who use wheelchairs,

  • or those, at the very least, who have a visible physical condition.

  • But accessibility is a broad concept

  • that applies to many, many different conditions.

  • That includes people with autism,

  • visual impairments,

  • and autoimmune diseases,

  • like lupus, which can cause pain and fatigue,

  • along with many other conditions.

  • In fact, the World Health Organization estimates

  • that there are approximately 1 billion people

  • who experience some form of disability,

  • which means that this group is very likely to include yourself,

  • or a family member,

  • a classmate,

  • a friend,

  • or a work colleague.

  • And people who use wheelchairs only make up about 65 million,

  • or 15% of the total.

  • The vast majority have non-visible disabilities.

  • Accessible parking spaces, facilities, and entrances

  • are designed with that entire group in mind.

  • So it's easy to see why in recent years people have begun to raise questions

  • about whether the symbol is really appropriate for what it's meant to do.

  • And it's not just about accuracy.

  • It's common for people to become indignant,

  • sometimes abusive,

  • when they see people without visible disabilities using accessible facilities.

  • The symbol is unfortunately creating widespread issues

  • for the very people and families it's meant to help.

  • The recent redesigns have attempted with some success

  • to acknowledge concerns over the current symbol.

  • But some think that a complete redesign is in order.

  • It's a difficult task, though.

  • How do you replace a symbol that's familiar the world over?

  • And what do you replace it with?

Some of the world's most recognizable symbols exist to sell products,

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B1 TED-Ed symbol accessible accessibility people visible

What does this symbol actually mean? - Adrian Treharne

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    Kristi Yang posted on 2017/01/09
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