Accessibility -- Which Symbol to Use?

Thursday, October 6, 2016

In recent years there has been a concerted effort to replace the traditional symbol of “Accessibility” with what some advocates view as a more vital and robust rendition. As required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, signed by President George H. W. Bush, the use of the “International Symbol of Accessibility” became a guideline requirement for clearly identifying provisions for accessibility to public site users. This traditional symbol of accessibility (fig. 1) has

International Accessibility Symbol

Figure 1

undoubtedly served those intentions very well for the past 45-plus years, clearly portraying its representational meaning. Proponents of the revised version see the older symbol as a stagnant image of those who are physically challenged and rely on accessibility provisions.

In 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation making New York the first state in the nation to require the modified symbol for recognizing accessibility provisions, particularly for state-owned sites or funded projects. The law also required the removal of the word “handicapped” from new or replaced state signage. This was done in an effort to change the standard ADA image, eliminating a perceived stigma for those who

New Universal Access Symbol

Figure 2

rely on accessibility. Informally referred to as the “In Motion” symbol (fig. 2), the new image is often referred to as the “Universal Accessibility Symbol” and is also construed as the “International Symbol for Accessibility.”

Though many others have also advocated for swapping out the long-standing “International Symbol for Accessibility,” the effort has not yet gained total acceptance. Until there is a complete change in attitude toward disability inclusiveness, and all regulatory documents are updated accordingly, there will be continued confusion on what is required. We will most likely see a mixed use of symbols, as shown in figure 3, for some time to come.

As a New York State Design Professional, one is obligated to provide for what the law requires. So in the event of differing scenarios among regulatory requirements, it becomes necessary to provide whichever is more applicably correct. However, in the case of which accessibility symbol is to be used, what is considered to be most applicable? Does the design professional advocate for the use of the traditional “International Symbol of Accessibility,” per the federal regulations

Accessibility Symbols Mixed Usage

Figure 3

and guidelines of the ADA, or does he/she go with the recently imposed “In Motion Symbol,” as directed by state legislation?

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the judgment for what might be acceptable for deviation from the ADA’s guidelines, would be that which is considered a “substantial equivalent facilitation.” There is a provision for this under the ADA law. It means that for a sign to be valid, it must be equal or greater in weight and significance to that which is provided by the ADA.

While this may seem a bit confusing, there is no mandate to change signage which is already in use, unless it is for state-owned or state-funded facilities. The change will be gradual, and the design professional, working with the project owner, should use his/her best discretion in the application of accessibility signage.

- James A. Palumbo, R.L.A., ASLA 

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