Activist group brings the active Accessible Icon “brand” to committee at city hall

Dec. 4, 2017

By Arianne Robinson

A new accessibility symbol to reflect a more active lifestyle of people who use wheelchairs was presented at city hall on Monday. Jonathan Silver, co-founder of The Forward Movement, gave a presentation about the movement to council’s Accessibility Advisory Committee.

“When we see [the traditional] accessible icon, that is kind of like the logo [for accessibility],” Silver said about the importance of the existing symbol before his presentation. “There is no other symbol that’s as widely seen as representing accessibility.”

When asked about the importance of the change, Silver explained: “A symbol is basically – it’s the brand, right? Symbols communicate basic messaging – very instructive messaging like, ‘Here is an accessible entrance.’

“Symbols also can carry an emotional value as well. So they transmit a message… if they’re showing somebody who is stationary in a chair and looks like that person needs help and is focussing on that chair, then the message is communicated to us emotionally in a way where we feel very differently about persons with a disability,” Silver said. “If that image portrays the sense of movement and activity and independence, then we’re going to get a different portrayal of persons with a disability.”

The symbol departs from the International Symbol of Access, designed by Susanne Koefoed for a Scandinavian seminar in 1968. The new symbol is attributed to Sara Hendren, Brian Glenney, and Tim Ferguson Sauder of The Accessible Icon Project, and produced through Ferguson Sauder’s agency asmallpercent. New York’s Museum of Modern Art featured the symbol in an exhibit called This Is for Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good that ran in 2015, titling the newer design Accessible Icon (2009-2011).

Toronto Accessible Advisory Committee member Joe Knapper likes the newer symbol. “The [currently used] static image gives you the impression that people in wheelchairs just sit there, and don’t do anything,” Knapper said after the meeting. “I like the idea that the symbol gives that sense that we might be in wheelchair, but we’re contributing in society, we’re participating in society, we’re moving forward too. People in chairs or whatever the disability is.”

Knapper hopes the new symbol will change the conversation in the city, especially around misuse of the parking permits. “Changing the symbol might help people understand that, oh you know, I really shouldn’t park there, even if I have a parking permit… [and] might help foster a little more responsible use of the parking spots by people who really don’t need them.”

A driver and long-time user of a wheelchair himself, Knapper is constantly mindful of this as he gets around the city. “If I don’t need it, I don’t park there. If I go to a store and there’s only two available parking spots and I see ones already occupied I think to myself, ‘I can park on end of the road and put my ramp out. I don’t need the spot. I can leave it for someone who does.’ ”

The committee moved a motion to a report to the mayor’s Executive Committee in the first quarter of 2018 with a plan for implementation of the new symbol on all city-owned properties, and a request to the province to include the new symbol in the Ontario Building Code and Highway Traffic Act.

Silver said a number of Ontario cities and more than 50 provincial and national organizations have endorsed the new symbol. “They all say this symbol is a better portrayal – closer to the image they want to give.”

“[The symbol] is not perfect in the sense that it’s not going to represent everybody,” Silver said. “[But] I don’t think that we need to look for what’s perfect, I think we need to look for what’s better. This is a pretty small thing we can do to really improve things in the province. One day, what would be perfect is if we didn’t need accessible icons – it was just obvious that every place was accessible. That would be perfect.”