Moving forward: Accessibility icon set to change in Toronto

4:41 p.m., Jan. 24, 2018. Advocates want the International Symbol of Access to be replaced by a modern version that depicts a person in a wheelchair leaning forward as though they are in motion.

Jan. 24, 2018

By Arianne Robinson

Toronto is even closer to joining the list of Ontario cities that will use a new accessibility icon, following an endorsement from Mayor John Tory’s Executive Committee of a plan for how a new symbol can be implemented for city-owned properties.

The new symbol looks like a person in a wheelchair leaning forward as though they are moving, as opposed to the current symbol where the person is sitting still.

The motion to change the symbol passed unanimously at committee.

“This is really great,” said Jonathan Silver, co-founder of The Forward Movement, an organization that advocates for the new symbol, after the vote at City Hall. “So much work and there’s been so many cities and municipalities that have done what [the mayor’s Executive Committee] just did. So I’m really happy and it’s especially meaningful because this is the city where I live. We’re working all over Ontario and now it’s at home.”

If approved at city council, Toronto will be added to the a list of municipalities across Ontario that have voted to use the new symbol. Sarnia, Guelph, Stratford, Waterloo, and Cambridge have endorsed the new symbol in addition to New York State and Connecticut in the U.S. The idea for the new symbol first came to Toronto’s Accessibility Advisory Committee in December.

At this morning’s media availability, Tory said he supported the new symbol based on advice from the accessibility committee. “The reason we have these advisory committees is to give us advice on these things because they tend to be people with lived experience, and so I’m often very persuaded by what they have to say,” Tory said.

Tory also expressed concerns about there being confusion between the old and the new sign.

“I think the most important thing is that we have consistently,” Tory told reporters. “Especially in a city as diverse as this where you have people with different language capabilities, what’s important is that everybody knows when they see a sign that it’s the one that tells them that there’s access for them in a certain place or in a certain way.”

Silver doesn’t think the two signs being used at the same time will be a problem. “The sign is so similar to the old symbol that I think people don’t bat an eye, they see it and they understand what it means. So I don’t think there are any practical problems with the consistency.”

The International Symbol of Access (left) and the new Dynamic Symbol of Access (right).
The International Symbol of Access (left) and
the new Dynamic Symbol of Access (right).

Anne-Marie Flanagan, spokesperson for the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario, wrote in an email to Signal Toronto on Wednesday that the International Symbol of Access is currently required by law and building code to be used on signage indicating accessible parking spots and accessible washrooms, but noted spaces where the new symbol can be used.

“Many organizations throughout the province have begun using the Dynamic Symbol of Access advocated by the Forward Movement in areas not covered by legislation, such as the painted symbols in accessible parking spots,” Flanagan wrote. “We applaud their efforts to highlight the importance of accessibility to their organizations.”

Silver explained how the changes could apply. “There’s places where the [traditional symbol] is not mandated by the Highway Traffic Act and the municipal building code. For example, on a washroom door on a building, you can have [the new icon] – not on a push button but on the door itself – that sign, you can make that sign be whatever you want.”

The changes to the symbol are tied to a wider shift in how issues of ability are represented in city building. Tory likened the issue to changes in how the public talks about illness: “Instead of looking at people that have mental health [problems] as somehow something we should put over to one side and not really think about or talk about, we now talk about.”

Tory called the change in the symbol “a more positive statement about that fact that what we’re trying to do is make things accessible and make it possible for people with differing abilities to have a very full life like the rest of us do, and that includes everything from transportation to access to buildings and many things in between.”

The spotlight to raise the profile on accessibility in municipal spaces was in the news recently, with reference to Toronto’s own Drake. South of the border, an image of Toronto-raised Grammy and Juno-winning rapper in his character of Wheelchair Jimmy from the TV show Degrassi was included in a slide deck by New York City Parks (link here, page 52).

Signal Toronto reached out to NYC Parks, asking what was the the reason for using Drake. A spokesperson from the NYC Parks press office called the use of the image a “coincidence” in an email. Back in September, New York Post’s Joe Tacopino asked NYC Parks’s assistant commissioner for communications Sam Biederman about how Drake ended up in the park presentation. “Started at the bottom of Fort Greene Park’s signature hill, now we’re here with the final design, which takes care to create a more welcoming park entrance – with improved views,” Biederman responded.