Codes: What’s in a Symbol?

pg. 5 mikiten

Erick Mikiten, AIA

Erick Says:

Let’s examine something we seepg. 4 symbol 1 everywhere, but gets little attention: the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA). This familiar symbol, created by Rehabilitation International (RI) in 1968, originally had no head! Thankfully, it quickly grew one, and became the icon for accessible features.

RI set protocols for applying the symbol in 1978, which were picked up by the United Nations (UN), International Organization of Standardization (ISO), the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and building codes around the globe. Everyone agreed that the symbol would help people navigate the environment: a powerful idea.

When I travel as a wheelchair rider, especially to countries with different accessibility requirements, the ISA gives me immediate cues as to how to access a building or service. Without this guidance, one flounders around, knocking on doors, asking strangers, searching for access.

While the ISA is powerful (RI claims that it is one of the five most recognized symbols in the world), it is tired and ready for an upgrade.

pg. 4 symbol 2Look at the familiar image on the right. The figure (even with a head) is angular and stiff. It’s static, immobile and passive; it says “Push Me.”

Now examine the alternative symbol on the left. pg. 4 symbol 3It’s active and self-determined. It’s rounded like an actual human. It says , “coming through!” This symbol reflects the reality that disability means something different than it did even ten years ago, not to mention in 1968.

Perceptions are shifting. High-tech advances in prosthetic limbs and mobility equipment are changing the game. Images like these photos are all over the media. Focus is shifting from disability to expanding abilities. And the perception of disability is turning the corner from marginal, to mainstream cool.

Consider how omnipresent the old ISA symbol is. It’s in every parking lot, on building entrances, street parking signs, bus doors, restroom doors, pathways, and more. If this was a corporate symbol, would it have remained unchanged for so long? No way! The advertising industry of Madison Avenue would have been all over it.

In comparison, think about the changes Apple, Inc. (or AT&T, or UPS, etc.) has made over the years, reflecting their style and updating their image with the times.

It’s time to apply this thinking to accessible design, to create a more accurate expression of people with disabilities. Section 103 of the ADA and 11B-103 of the CBC are rarely-used sections about Equivalent Facilitation, and read: “Nothing in these requirements prevents the use of designs, products, or technologies as alternatives to those prescribed, provided they result in substantially equivalent or greater accessibility and usability.” This new symbol reads as clearly as the old one, and should be accepted by any building official.

Our firm uses this symbol and building departments have loved it. We’re distributing the graphic and signage details in PDF and DWG in hopes that other architects will do the same. Submit a request on and we’ll share it with you. It just makes sense.

Madison Avenue teaches us that symbols carry a lot of meaning. And as it gets out there in the public view, so will this one.



Kerwin Says:

The basic intent of the ISA is to provide way finding for the disabled when the
accessible path is not obvious. This is most needed in buildings that have limited
access due to existing conditions. As more buildings become fully accessible under
the code, the need for the ISA should not be needed.

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp
I CC – Certified Accessibility Inspector
and Plan Examiner
ICC – Certified Building Plan Examiner

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