Thursday, June 18, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Accessibility, Disability

There have been discussions on Accessify Forum as to what sort of icon should be used to represent accessibility, or accessibility-related topics.

International Symbol of Accessibility (Wikipedia)

There is an international symbol of accessibility, which is basically a stylised white wheelchair on a blue background. This has various advantages and disadvantages. Firstly, it’s very clear. Everyone who sees it will recognise a wheelchair, they will know it’s something to do with disability. The fact that it is symbolic means of course that there’s no language issue either.

But … and there’s always a but, isn’t there … it does carry implications of wheelchairiness. Plenty of people are disabled who don’t use a wheelchair. There are people who are blind, who are deaf (or Deaf, as you prefer), and a whole pile of other conditions and impairments which don’t necessarily mean someone will use a wheelchair. Is the wheelchair symbol therefore less suitable for use on the web, where wheelchairiness doesn’t really impact at all on web use, particularly when compared to those who need a screen reader, are colour blind, can’t use a mouse and so on…

Joe Clark has written an article on symbolizing accessibility which covers a lot of these issues — on and off the web — and where he specifically goes to look at computer accessibility where he indicates his preference for the recommends the use of Apple’s stick-man-in-a-circle figure as used on Apple’s Accessibility Page.

While this may be more universal (indeed Joe suggest it best represents ‘Universal Access’), it’s — I’d guess — less obviously recognisable as something which relates to disability/accessibility (although it may be well known amongst the Macheads). Also I don’t know whether or not the image is free for anyone to use, or whether it’s “owned” by Apple — although I’m hopeful someone will tell me!

helping hand logo (4-finger)

Phil Teare (of Textic and Talklets) proposed some ‘helping hands’ logos on Accessify Forum, which he has released into the public domain, so they are free to use. There are two versions; a helping hand logo with the standard four-fingers-plus-thumb, and a three finger variant.

helping hand logo (3-finger)

Again, these carry with them no indications of specific disability; but again they will come up against the problem of not being as recognisable as relating to disability, and there is potentially a third issue. Would some people see the idea of a ‘helping hand’ as an implication that disabled people are inferior, or that they must rely on the help (connotation: charity) of “normal” people?

I don’t know. But it’s one of those issues which isn’t particularly easy. How do you come up with a symbol that will universally represent disability as a whole, without relating more to one disability than another, and also make it obvious, and make it so that it is not going to be thought of as offensive by anyone?

If you know someone who might have an opinion on this, or be able to offer some advice, or an assessment of what people will tend to think — particularly anything backed up by research/polling — then answers on a postcard please to the usual address… (or you could just stick it in the comments, if that’s easier)

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

35 Comments to Accessiconograpy

  1. Joe Clark says:

    June 18th, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    The helping-hands business is atrocious. First, disabled people don’t need other people’s “hands” helping them out. Second, the illustration looks like Papa Smurf.

    As I believe we are no longer allowed to say these days, FAIL.

  2. Eileen Foster says:

    June 19th, 2009 at 3:51 am

    I read Joe Clark’s post about accessibility symbols a while back. One thing that really stuck with me was his discussion of bar sinister, for example the slash over an ear in the universal symbol for deafness (

    Since then, I’ve been tempted to Photoshop that bar into a cupid’s arrow.

    The connotation of negativity, forbidden and bad in combination with disability is so ancient and unconscious. It’s interesting to see how it continues to be perpetuated.

    I vote for the Apple symbol, if it can be co-opted. It similar enough to benefit from the recognition of the wheelchair symbol, but generic enough to be inclusive to all. It is a symbol that does not marginalize PWD.

  3. JackP says:

    June 19th, 2009 at 7:17 am

    There’s an interesting post from Leonie Watson on the AccessifyThread:

    As a blind person, I feel no sense of identification with that symbol, other than by the fact of its convention. I’m afraid I haven’t really understood the detail of Phil’s symbol, but the concept of a helping hand seems like a step in the right direction.

    Most people with disabilities need a helping hand from time to time. At the risk of ticking off several people, I think that we’d be foolish to suggest otherwise. The possibility that the idea may upset some people though can’t be dismissed.

    I must admit I like the sound of the Apple symbol. I gather it uses the blue circle of the existing wheelchair symbol, so goes some way to utilising accepted convention to promote a new icon. I like the idea of open arms. It seems to suggest inclusion and acceptance.Léonie Watson

    I have to say my thoughts are leaning towards not to include an accessibility icon at all but to include accessibility as part of ‘standard’ help. In other words, make the accessibility aspect less of an add-on, and not something separate for those with disabilities. In this circumstances, a helping hand logo might be okay, although I’d tend to go with a question mark for help.

    Although as Léonie points out, people do need a hand (whether disabled or not) from time to time. This reminds me of the whole anti- use of the word ‘handicapped’ particularly in the UK. The word carries negative connotations – although why this is might be a different matter. Some people thought (incorrectly) that the term came from cap-in-hand (i.e. begging for money/assistance) which it doesn’t.

    Many people would therefore seem to have taken against the word for reasons which don’t actually exist; and then some take against it as it carries these connotations, even if they know the etymology. Of course, as the article also states, there are other reasons why it carries negative connotations too…

  4. JackP says:

    June 19th, 2009 at 7:19 am

    Oh, and Joe, by all means do say “FAIL” if you want to. But if you want to be trendy and hip with the young twitterati, try #FAIL :-)

    Of course, you can tell how trendy and hip I am by the fact that I’m using words like ‘trendy’ and ‘hip’. Man, I’m a real groovy cat.

  5. Karen says:

    June 19th, 2009 at 11:16 am

    Not being a designer, I thought I had nothing to add to this discussion. However, I like the constructive/positive attitude in Eileen’s and Leonie’s comments.

    WHO just said that disability is a universal human experience:
    JackP’s idea of incorporating accessibility in any standard form of help fits that concept.
    In that one area of help, you can have subcategories. One subcategory example is mobility/agility (e.g. arthritic fingers, erractic arm movements, bobbing heads).
    Hmm this sounds like progressive disclosure, but is there anything wrong with that?

  6. Phil says:

    June 19th, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    Actually Joe, yes we do need a hand some times. All of us. As Leonie testifies, so do disabled folk. And Its not for ‘disabled people’, its for people who need a helping hand! Could mean those with literacy difficulies, foreign speekers etc..

    You’re right that its not the best illustration, but then, as I say in the thread (presuming you read it) I’m not the worlds best illustrator. And I welcome better attempts. Please add to the discussion if you wish.

    Or should I tag your comments #constructive_FAIL ?

  7. Eileen Foster says:

    June 19th, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    I didn’t address the “helping hand” icon in my previous comment.

    I get the idea that the point is to convey assistance, but it doesn’t strike me that the hand actually conveys this with design clarity or elegance.

    Yes, people with disabilities do need the cooperation of others to create accessible environments on- and off-line. However, I do agree with Joe Clark that implying dependence on others is not the message to rally around.

    That is one of the reason’s why I like the Apple icon, it is pretty much baggage-free.

    The idea of accessibility being something we don’t need a special symbol for is the goal. As we know, we are far from being there. A symbol informs PWD of accessible structures and services, it also raises awareness in the general population.

    I also wonder if we do need multiple symbols as accessibility is not implemented for all disabilities. For example, a building may be wheelchair accessible but does not provide braille signage.

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