Why the wheelchair symbol should be rethought to include “invisible disabilities”

McCann London has launched the Visability93 campaign to change perceptions around disability, and raise awareness of the millions of people worldwide living with conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s, who may not be considered “disabled” by on-lookers.

Courtesy of Myson Danube

The white icon of a person in a wheelchair set against a blue background is known worldwide as the universal symbol for disability. Found on toilet doors, painted onto parking bays and seen on public transport signage, the image is known as the International Symbol of Access (ISA), and indicates that a facility is accessible for those with disabilities, or solely for their use.

But is this icon of a person in a wheelchair inclusive? Designed by Danish design student Susanne Koefoed in 1968, the symbol celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and many people now feel it should be updated to reflect people with “invisible disabilities” – those who are not in a wheelchair, whose condition cannot be seen or is discrete.

Does the wheelchair symbol account for all disabilities?

According to the Equality Act 2010, somebody is classed as having a “disability” when they have a “physical or mental impairment that has a substantial or long-term negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities” – clearly, life-long conditions that affect people daily are not limited to those requiring use of a wheelchair. But many people are not aware of this scope.

For employees at McCann London, this is an issue close to their heart. That’s why the advertising agency has launched a campaign called Visability93 that looks to rethink the ISA, and create a symbol that is more representative of those with invisible disabilities, including the likes of diabetes, arthritis, mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, depression and anxiety, and learning difficulties like dyspraxia.

“Many of us at McCann have family members with invisible disabilities, and see the hardships they go through,” says Liam Riddler, art director at McCann London. “My brother has Crohn’s disease, and because he doesn’t ‘look’ disabled, people don’t understand why he needs to use accessible toilets or priority seating, even though he is in a lot of pain. We wanted to get together to do something about this.”

A typeface made up of 27 disabled icons

Riddler worked with Lisa Carrana, deputy head of art at McCann London, to create a suite of 27 new icons which look to represent different disabilities – from epilepsy to diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

The icons, which have been designed as a custom typeface rather than images so they can easily be used for signs and in text, are freely available to download on the Visability93 campaign website, with the creators encouraging the public to use and disseminate them.

As the icons have been designed as a full typeface, they can be used in the place of letters, using keys on a person’s keyboard. Every letter in the alphabet indicates a different disability symbol, with uppercase for women and lowercase for men. Additionally, the symbol combination “-,.” creates the existing wheelchair icon, making this the 27th icon in the set.

Worked with charities and focus groups

The two designers worked with people they know living with disabilities to create the suite of icons, taking into account their feedback when they felt something was inappropriate.

“Our original symbol for diabetes showed an icon with coloured-in feet, to show that, without management, diabetes can sometimes lead to foot ulcers, and eventually foot loss” says Riddler. “Somebody with the condition then told us this was distressing for them as it was their worst fear, so we changed it so the icon was coloured-in half-way up the body to represent high blood sugar instead.”

To choose the 26 conditions, McCann used charity websites such as Scope and American charity the Invisible Disability Project for research, but Riddler says that there are many more conditions to include, and that the project is still in progress.

Since the original 27 icons were designed, a few more have been added, and the suite of icons will continue to grow, he says. They will be created in collaboration with charities and disabled communities.

Could there be a new international symbol?

Visability93 is so-titled to reflect how 93% of those with disabilities do not use a wheelchair. Alongside the free icons, the website looks to raise awareness of invisible disabilities through posters and t-shirts displaying the symbols, which can bought online, with proceeds going to the corresponding disability’s charity. A free poster raising awareness of the scope of disabilities can also be downloaded, and stuck around public spaces and offices, such as on toilet doors.

As well as encouraging people to download and use all the assets, the campaign is also seeking designers, illustrators, charities and the public to submit their thoughts on the icon suite the agency has created, and also submit sketches and concepts for a new universal symbol for disability.

“An evolution, not a revolution”

After whittling down and refining entries, the aim will then be to approach the International Organisation for Standardisation (IOS) in Belgium, the body that decides on worldwide symbols and signage, with a new concept for an icon that represents disabled access. Riddler says this needs to be “an evolution, not a revolution” of the existing wheelchair icon.

“That symbol is so recognisable around that world that we can’t change it too much,” he says. “The most important thing is that it’s still recognisable as the ISA (International Symbol of Access). We could add to it or tweak it so that there’s another person on the symbol, or the circle graphic is used in a different way. But we know it is a highly effective symbol and we need to respect that.”

The project is completely pro-bono, meaning neither McCann London or the chosen designer will get paid for the work, but whoever creates the new symbol will be “fully credited”.

Symbol has “helped” some but caused “judgement” for others

Riddler says that while convincing the IOS to change an international symbol will be a tricky task, McCann London is working with worldwide charities and disabled communities to help raise awareness and backing for the project, and convince the organisation that change is necessary.

“The symbol is 50 years’ old now,” he says. “It has helped so many people in wheelchairs, and had such a positive impact on how they navigate around public spaces but it has also caused a deflection issue for disabled people who don’t use wheelchairs. These people already struggle, and they receive public judgement on top of that. People who question those with invisible disabilities have good intentions but they are very misinformed. This is an education and awareness job.”

“Design can make a huge impact on people’s lives, as this symbol has,” he adds. “But all design needs to be looked at and updated as culture changes.”

McCann London hopes to arrive at a new, proposed symbol of access by the end of 2018, with a view to present it to the IOS with backing from charities and disabled communities in 2019.

View the Visability93 campaign, download icons and posters, and submit your thoughts here.

Hide Comments (31)Show Comments (31)
  • Donny August 2, 2018 at 1:23 am

    The purpose of the wheelchair is to represent that there is enough space for someone to fit a wheelchair in if they needed to.

    Why don’t we change the save icon from a floppy disk? Because people know what it means. You can’t just change the icon out of nowhere. You have to let it evolve.

    • J August 5, 2018 at 2:37 pm

      If you’ve never been challenged by someone who doesn’t see your disability you can be forgiven for thinking it’s this simple.

      The truth is an accessible toilet is not ‘disabled only’ but ‘accessible’. Like priority seating – if no one’s using it, go ahead.
      We can change icons but what we need to change are attitudes. I’m not convinced a new typeface will do it tbh.

  • Adam North August 2, 2018 at 8:59 am

    While I get the point of this. Coming up with 1 symbol that covers all is an impossible task. The symbol needs to remain simple and identifyable at a glance. If we need to address this, would we not also need to address the gender issue? why only have a male and female symbol when we are ignoring the transgender? or the other ‘invisible’ genders?

    • J August 5, 2018 at 2:40 pm

      Transgender people identify as a gender so the issue isn’t that they don’t have toilets they can go in, it’s that they’re not ‘allowed’ to, or vilified for doing it.

  • Rob Andrews August 2, 2018 at 10:42 am

    Interesting and thought-provoking work around the nature and perception of disability – I hope that it gets widely shared and used as a tool to spark discussion around how we deal with disability. Like most people, I would imagine, I can find half an alphabet within my close family and friends, none of whom would need to use a wheelchair.

    However, it doesn’t help us think about the clunky bathchair icon, because it doesn’t really recognise the purpose of the clunky bathchair icon. A person with depression doesn’t need to park closer to the tills at Sainsbury’s; a person with diabetes doesn’t need more room to negotiate having a wee in the Odeon.

    The fundamental problem, as the “Baby on Board” badge on the London Underground would seem to indicate, is that we lack the restraint to keep the special toilet, the special seat on the tube, and the special parking space self-selecting, so we need the badges to prove that we deserve them. What the bathchair symbol needs replacing with is a catch-all symbol representing “people who deserve a little bit more thought applied to them”.

    • J August 5, 2018 at 2:43 pm

      Speak for yourself – I’d love to be able to park closer to the shop but also, during bad episodes, a large private space like a disabled toilet can be really handy!
      And for diabetics – taking readings and injecting are actually things that would be helped by a disabled toilet.

  • DJ August 2, 2018 at 11:50 am

    The whole point of the symbol is to explain that if you are in a wheelchair, you have access nearby.

    Other disabilities need to be recognised, but not with another symbol to replace this one.

    This article is a piece of self promotion, not an act of purpose.

    Quite shameless.

    • Terry Tibbs August 2, 2018 at 3:58 pm

      Totally agree with the shameless self promo. And if i was suffering from depression I wouldn’t be too happy (pun not intended) by being represented by a shrugged shouldered person.

    • J August 5, 2018 at 2:44 pm

      Designers promoting their work! The very idea!

    • MS August 12, 2018 at 2:44 pm

      Absolutely … I couldn’t agree more!

  • Steve Campion August 2, 2018 at 6:52 pm

    I don’t believe this is a problem that needs solving. The wheelchair signifies accessibility to people should they require it

    • J August 5, 2018 at 2:45 pm

      It is definitely a problem that needs solving. I’ve experienced it to a very minor degree, but someone I know, with a very serious illness, has been made to feel very unwelcome using disabled toilets because she doesn’t use a wheelchair. It is a very common occurrence. Just not for those who don’t have hidden disabilities.

  • Beverly Dye August 3, 2018 at 3:59 pm

    I am not an artist, can’t even draw something simple like a tree. But if I could draw, or create a symbol, I would take as many disability symbols or icons, place them together in a way that it creates a wheelchair. That way you include all the disabilities and you keep the wheelchair accessibility logo.

    • Jane August 20, 2018 at 12:03 pm

      Damn! There goes my idea 🙁

  • james August 4, 2018 at 12:06 pm

    i would find it difficult to have so many symbols on the door or parking spaces and i agree the wheelchair symbol is for wider spaces and closer access or larger toilet area to cover so many disabilities defeats the point of a standard clear symbol that can be recognised at a glance. i wouldnt have a clue what half those symbols meant

  • Des Trainor August 7, 2018 at 8:39 am

    Pointless exercise, some things are better left alone. Have we not had enough of this sort of patronising libralism. Design for the sake of design and really not really fit for purpose. I think the studio junior needs a new project.

  • Debbie Hudson August 11, 2018 at 7:04 am

    At long last people with invisible impairments such as autism have been made eligible for a blue badge.

    I do not think that the wheelchair symbol of a person in a wheelchair is inclusive of all who have disabilities.

    It should be changed.

  • Brendan Murphy August 11, 2018 at 11:58 am

    As an athlete in Dublin, I raced side by side with wheelchair athletes. In 1995, through a grant from the SEGD, I sought to capture the spirit and independence of these athletes in the symbol. The activity and movement are suggested with body positioning–the angle of the torso, and the “pushing position” of the arm. The goal is to portray an active, independent person, in sharp contrast to the former symbol which has been described as dependent, rigid and helpless.

    As part of this work I also took the opportunity to design a symbol of universal access. The open-door symbol answers a call for a symbol of universal access – a symbol, for a time when environments will be barrier-free, and our focus moves from individual disability, to access for all.


    • John Hathway August 15, 2018 at 7:04 pm

      Hi Brendan, Regardless of the ridiculous original brief (ie one logo to fit all ailments) I love your ‘active’ wheelchair user – it is a stunning improvement!

  • Charles Reid August 12, 2018 at 5:13 am

    How about something simpler, like an abstract symbol. A universal symbol of “access”. A symbol that represents all regardless of disability and gender/sex. You could turn this into a world-wide challenge for artists. Have a world-wide media campaign and link to a multi-language website where people can vote on different abstract designs.
    There would need to be some kind of structure to prevent an inappropriate symbol from going virial. Artists would submit their artwork to a selection committee. This committee would have representation from different disability organizations around the world. This committee would narrow it down to say 5 different designs. Then post these designs on the website and have people vote on them.
    My other suggestion is a dashed person and a dashed wheelchair side by side symbol. The wheelchair could be condensed slightly, so the sign is not too big. Remember the symbol needs to be easy to read and see.
    We leave it the same and have a world-wide media campaign that informs people that the wheelchair symbol includes: invisible disabilities, gender/sex and parent with baby. “Think the 3rd bathroom design”.

  • Charles Reid August 12, 2018 at 5:44 am

    Seriously do we really need more symbols/labels? If only we were not so ignorant, reactionary and judgmental. People love to assume though.

  • John Hathway August 13, 2018 at 8:39 am

    Is it April 1st? If not, then the instigators of this great ‘masterplan’ should probably be looking for another career.

  • Jane August 20, 2018 at 12:01 pm

    I am diabetic and am certainly not disabled by the condition. I don’t need to hide away to take blood glucose readings or inject my insulin. Both can be done discretely. I don’t go to the toilet to inject…I do it at the table…and no-one notices (even the people who do not know I am diabetic)

  • Voxann September 4, 2018 at 9:20 pm

    I don’t see the point in why we should change that symbol of wheelchair. It represents a need for space to use the toilet in general. Because people in wheelchairs need the space, that’s where it all started. Please give them the credit for allowing that kind of space for other people with disabilities to use to their advantage. I am saying this because as a deaf person, our deafness has influenced our need for closed captioning as our communication accessibility on TV and online videos, it has helped countless others who has different disabilities or personal preferences to use closing captions for their benefit thanks to us.

  • Nadja September 17, 2018 at 12:27 pm

    This is a joke right? These new symbols are more insulting for people with invisible disabilities than helpful or is it OK to call people with depression “the sad guy” or “squared heat” and so on?! – inventing nicknames!
    Also, the wheelchair show its purpose. A person in a wheelchair needs more space than a person who walks on two legs. I never heard that a depressed person can’t physically go to the loo because there isn’t enough space. However, at the end everyone is allowed to go to the disabled toilet but leave the space free for those which really need it!

  • Kris November 17, 2018 at 5:35 am

    This was an interesting design /research exercise, but ultimately fruitless – the aim of redesigning the universal access symbol for the modern world is to make it more INCLUSIVE not to categorise and thus make it more EXCLUSIVE.
    What is needed is a single symbol for disability that recognises the fact that many forms are invisible, and the users can be given preferential treatment without discrimination, which is a growing problem according to recent articles.
    Some have suggested a ‘D’ or the word ‘disabled’ as a replacement, but there are negative connotations with D and using letters or a word is not going to be globally recognised, which is a key advantage to the current ♿ signage.

  • Stephen December 5, 2018 at 9:33 am

    If we’re looking at inclusivity then why do we need an icon at all? Could the environment be adapted around the individual rather than an image around a disability.

  • Amit December 17, 2018 at 3:01 am

    I’m not sure why this conversation revolves almost exclusively around the wheelchair icon. Whenever I use public transport (around Asia, where I live), there are other pictograms that allocate special consideration to certain identifiable segments of the population – whose limitations are visible as well: elderly with cane, broken foot, pregnant women, women with infants, etc. Personally, I don’t fit into any of those categories, partly because my invisabilities include an inability to SIT and to carry heavy loads. We might consider how Thailand has conjured up a pictogram for monks (re their spiritual status rather than a physical hindrance), that you can see posted on buses and boats, giving them first dibs on a seat – or in a dedicated standing area (!). I believe that it IS possible to design a single logo/pictogram that is unrelated to the wheelchair logo and is inclusive of all who live (and struggle) with hidden handicaps, whether physical, mental, or emotional – without being too specific, and without attaching a label (eg depression, diabetes, etc) that might have the unintended effect of amplifying any felt stigma. The question is: what might that look like?

  • Ciaran Saward September 17, 2019 at 12:01 am

    It’s been a while, but I did actually propose a symbol to answer this brief.
    I share the skepticism about whether a new symbol is the right route, or would do enough to address the problems of hidden disabilities, let alone how it could retain the important focus on wheelchair access. A symbol could only ever be part of a solution, though if it could help articulate the importance of accessibility more widely, and provide a visual rallying point, it might be a worthy part of efforts to improve the lives of those living with hidden disabilities. This was my thinking when I proposed my Accessibility symbol: https://www.behance.net/gallery/76726857/International-Symbol-of-Access-Redesign-(Visability-93)

  • Nancy Lee October 30, 2019 at 7:10 pm

    The general purpose of the image is to clarify that, the image needs to stay basic and recognizable initially. On the off chance that we have to address this, would we not additionally need to address the sex issue? BTW that way you incorporate every one of the inabilities and you keep the wheelchair openness logo. https://www.seniorlivinghelp.co/best-walkers-for-seniors/

  • George December 9, 2020 at 6:42 am

    If it’s not instantly recognisable for what it is, it fails as an icon.

    The wheelchair may not represent each disability, but it is the most quickly and easily understood.

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