Merits of accessibility logo debated

The wheelchair, the international symbol of access, was the focus of campus discussion on Wednesday

Heidi Penning speaks at the Accessibility Café, which took place on Wednesday at the Common Ground.
Heidi Penning speaks at the Accessibility Café, which took place on Wednesday at the Common Ground.

An Accessibility Café took place at Common Ground Coffeehouse Wednesday to discuss changing the symbol of access, the blue man in wheelchair, into a more inclusive and positive image.

The current symbol was created in 1968 by Rehabilitation International with assistance from the United Nations and the International Organization for Standardization.

The one-hour discussion, which was held Wednesday, was led by Heidi Penning, an equity advisor in the Queen’s Equity Office.

The Accessibility Café aims to engage the Queen’s community in discussions around accessibility.

“It’s very difficult because the campus is so decentralized and spread out,” Penning told the Journal.

She said she hopes to generate talk and get people thinking about accessibility in the broader community. She doesn’t want to simply ask for opinions when doing accessibility planning.

The purpose of the international symbol was to designate facilities accessible to people using wheelchairs, she added.

“It was a very discrete agenda,” Penning said.

The current symbol is strongly attached to the word “handicap”, which has a negative connotation stemming from WWII.

“Soldiers who returned injured from the war would often find themselves begging on the street, hat in hand — that’s where the word comes from,” Penning said at the talk.

As the definition of disability broadens, the search is on for a new symbol encompassing all types of disabilities and creates a more positive connotation around the symbol.

The Honourable David Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, partnered with OCAD University to hold a contest for the symbol redesign. About 100 designs were received from all over the world, but no winner has been chosen yet, and only two designs were given honourable mentions.

For the Blue Folder – Access Queen’s, a folder that includes information about support and services here on campus, the Equity Office chose a reimagined accessibility symbol from New York.

The image is modified from the blue man in wheelchair, where the man is in now leaning forward in motion.

This image has also caused controversy however, as only three per cent of people with disabilities are in wheelchairs.

“The challenge is trying to reimagine an icon that fits everyone,” Penning said, “The point that I’m trying to drive home is that … everyone lives with their disability differently.”

For the second half of the hour, Penning led a discussion asking critical questions such as: Why is a symbol needed? What meaning does the symbol have, to those disabled, and those who are not? Does the current symbol facilitate or hinder inclusion?

Penning said that, while she recognizes that an hour isn’t enough to find a solution, she hopes to spark conversation and interest through these discussions.

Two more Accessibility Café are set for February and March to discuss topics of implementing Facility Accessibility Design Standards at Queen’s, and designing residences with accessibility in mind.

“My goal is for people to go back and have these conversations with others,” Penning said.


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