The debate over the redesigned Wheelchair Symbol

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There are a great many problems with the old symbol, but most of them (e.g., that most disabled people don’t use wheelchairs, and that it’s drawn as a person physically merged with a wheelchair) are not changed with the new symbol. It’s mostly just a jazzier rendering of the same symbolism.

Apple have for several years used a completely different symbol for “accessibility”, which is simply a stylised human figure in the same white-on-blue color scheme. The idea, obviously, is to reflect that accessibility is not about disability or identity, it’s just about humans in all their variety being able to use stuff. It’s much less problematic semiotically (except that it arguably erases people with unusual numbers of limbs), but it has the significant practical drawback that it looks like a men’s toilet symbol, so it’s no use for signage, and certainly not for accessible toilet signage.


Ah, the wheelchair icon.

Symbols and words have the power that their users give them. Every symbol, and every word, will be abused by those who would abuse them: that’s the origin of the Euphemism Treadmill.

Rather than gleefully hopping aboard the treadmill, I’ve learnt to try to pursue a certain precision of speech. My eyes were opened to the importance of that precision a long time ago, when I innocently described a wheelchair-using colleage as ‘confined to a wheelchair by a motorcycle accident.’ He pointed out that ‘confined’ was a poor choice of words. He wasn’t confined to the chair. He was liberated by it. Without it, he was confined to his home. With it, he could roll to his car, continue working as an engineer, visit distant family, enjoy the theatre, enjoy a great many things. ‘Wheelchair user’ is simply more accurate, and I appreciated the correction.

Now, my daughter would insist that ‘person’ has to come first, and say that the phrasing must be, ‘person who uses a wheelchair.’ I do understand the political statement that we should ‘put the person first,’ but can’t quite cope with the verbosity, perhaps because I’m an old man (excuse me, person who is male and has lived more than some particular number of years). Perhaps we ought to campaign for modifications syntactic to put adjectives English after nouns?


To support your argument, this is really apparent when you see people with disability plates or tags in their car. The majority of people that use them don’t need wheelchairs.


…Although from a building retrofit standpoint, making it accessible to wheelchairs is the toughest thing. After all, a person with a cane may well be able to negotiate stairs if they have a decent railing.

Look at these stairs from the National building Museum, which was originally built to house the pension bureau after the civil war. These very low and long steps were designed to be used by handicapped civil war vets, but not wheelchairs. They would not qualify under current law as handicapped accessible because they are not wheelchair accessible. A non wheel chair symbol (say a man with a cane) might imply that that location was not accessible to wheelchairs.

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purely as a matter of design, i don’t like it - especially with the BW version, i can’t unsee a squashed spider

i agree it works better as originally employed in translucent overlay


The new symbol is just a reflection of our culture: everything worth doing needs to be done running, and if you can’t run, you’d better be racing that wheelchair.


My issue with the proposed new symbol is that it seems to depict a particular segment of wheelchair users, the paraplegic, that are not the ones needing the most help. They seem to be preferred choice for disability representation on tv shows and movies, either reality or fiction. Many times are portrayed by good looking people, frequently injured in sport, car accidents or at war in their early adulthood, and without any mental handicap. The new symbol is not more inclusive, in my own opinion.


Better to spend the effort attacking the pervasive active=good passive=bad value judgments. Worst cultural inheritance from the Greeks ever.


“Perfect. Please move quickly to the chamberlock, as the effects of prolonged exposure to the Button are not part of this test.”


I was just thinking the other day how impressive it was that this change had already become so pervasive. So of course there must be something wrong with it.


How about this one? It’s already associated with differently-abled people including wheelchair users.


My problem with the trend for ‘person first’ language is its tendency to increase ambiguity.
For example, “an artist of colour” can equally easily be read to mean a person who is an artist in the medium of colour.

On a personal note, I find it interesting that one never hears advocates for ‘person first’ language trying to speak of “a person of queerness”, for example.

A single symbol meant to represent all disabled people can’t, pretty much by definition, accurately depict every sort of disabled people. Clarity and ease of recognition are by far the most valuable qualities here.


Already used in Europe as a no parking sign.



More like "No Parking Except for the X-Jet."


Agreed. From my limited architectural revamp experience, buildings compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act can be accessed by all differently-abled people, including persons wielding wheelchairs, because accessible buildings have ramps, railings, no stairs to the bathroom, double-wide toilet stalls, low sinks, & most importantly – 47-inch-wide doorways. The wheelchair tells you that everyone will able to use the space. It’s a symbol of inclusivity, not just of identity.
A typesetting question–is there an ASCII symbol?


It looks like an accident with a portal gun.


Haha you’re so right. Seems like every commercial advertisement, for no-matter what type of product, involves very aggressive exercise. You’re not truly living unless you’ve sweating these days.


No, but I’m guessing you meant more like “is it in Unicode?", in which case, yes (U+267F :wheelchair:), but Unicode doesn’t specify the exact form of glyphs, so both the old and new symbols share the same code point, and indeed some platforms already show the new version mentioned above. There’s no way for the author of a text document to control which version readers see.

This codepoint is defined as “wheelchair symbol”, so if a standard new accessibility symbol emerged, it would eventually get a distinct codepoint of its own.