How redesigning an icon is changing perceptions worldwide

Some icons are so commonplace that we’ve come to not think twice about them—until they’re changed. One such image undergoing a makeover is the ‘International Symbol of Access’, commonly known as the ‘Wheelchair Symbol’.

There’s no doubt that the existing icon is easily recognizable; the problem, especially for the people it is supposed to represent, is that it portraits wheelchair users as passive and inactive—the original variation even depicted wheelchair users as headless. Combatting the problem is the Accessible Icon Project, an initiative designed to help change perceptions of wheelchair users by redesigning the classic icon to focus on the individual, rather than the disability. The new design is as easily recognizable, and ADA compliant but also features a person in control of their own movement and navigating the world under their own power.


Each element of the icon has been carefully judged to ensure the new symbol carries none of the negative connotations of the previous icon. Certainly the new design is less in-keeping with the 1960s view of people with disabilities that produced the original.

The Project encourages grassroots efforts to replace old signs with the new forward-thinking symbol. Both stencils and stickers are available for those that wish to enact change.

The Accessible Icon Project is a great example of how design can change the world for the better.

  • Drone

    Nice article, but surely I’m not the only one that thinks that logo looks absolutely awful?

    • LuSyo

      Agreed. Looks aggressive, or in a hurry…

    • Sean Ryan

      It isn’t a logo, it is an icon. The goal is not to make something attractive, it is to make it useful and immediately recognizable. Being that the icon is leaning heavily on its current version as to help with recognition, I think it does a fine job in achieving its goals.

      • Nodws


      • Andrew Hersh

        You can say, “it isn’t a logo, it is an icon,” all you want. But the purpose of the desecration of this GRAPHIC is to use it to communicate a message, which is the job of a logo.

        This is a logo. This is an awful logo. Not only that, but the message is ridiculous.

      • Benjie — WebdesignerDepot

        No, it’s not. Unless wheelchair users are some kind of corporate franchise, it’s an icon.

      • Victor D

        Actually, if we’re going by dictionary definitions (accessible in iOS by highlighting any word and selecting “Define”) Benjie is technically correct. However, where I take question to his explanation is the implication that using the word “logo” is somehow more negative than using the word “icon”. Most people (myself included) would find the terms to be similar enough that they use the two words interchangeably (and rightfully so), and if you quizzed them on the difference between the two, they’d probably think both words meant the same thing.

        In fact, one could argue that using “corporate icon” is just as valid as using “corporate logo”, and people wouldn’t really think there’s any difference between both words. It’s arguably the same situation as using “handicapped” versus using “disabled”, where both words are used interchangeably in the English language today, regardless of any perceived “positive” or “negative” meanings behind the lines.

        tl;dr let’s agree to disagree and settle for vocabulary diversity

      • Eddy Proca

        I think they’re referring to the MoMA logo with the wheelchair.

  • Duncan

    Simple, great idea. If it’s adopted in any big way, like the Paralympics, it’ll go some way to correcting views of disability.

  • Thomas

    I think this logo looks spectacular compared to the previous one. It portrays so much more strength and is clearly well thought out.

  • Tim

    That icon looks like someone is sitting on a toilet getting ready to wipe their butt. Drone is completely right. It is awful.

  • Andrew Hersh

    Um. This is a terrible idea.

    “So, here is a special parking spot that I can’t use. It USED to be reserved for somebody who needed it because they were physically limited and there was a sign there to remind me of that. However, NOW it is reserved for someone who speed races around in a super cool chair and who, apparently, there is nothing wrong with whatsoever and who has no limitations of any kind. HE gets to park here now. I’d better not take this spot, for some reason.”

    • Eddy Proca

      According to the article, it’s a she.

      • k

        Of course it has to be a female. Now the social justice warrior product is complete.

        When politics and reason meet. m(

    • Kris

      Most awesome post ever. I applaud you, sir.

  • chrismcd

    As someone who has grown up with the old symbol I don’t understand the necessity to change something so universal. I’ve never associated any of the negative connotations being brought up about it, and feel they’ve been brought up because a minor group of people feels marginalized.

    Does movement equate empowerment? On parking spots I wouldn’t find it so bad, but I would find this symbol strange on bathroom doors and stalls. It would be like having the “Walk” icon from street lights replace the “Mens/Womens” signs on bathroom doors. The symbol is also supposed to be a universal symbol to apply to anyone with a recognized disability, not just being confined to a wheelchair, but I think this confines the scope of the symbol’s intention. Good design doesn’t always have to be pretty, but it does have to communicate an idea well. I don’t think this does that and can’t see it being adopted universally.

  • Bill

    I agree that the thought is appreciated but it looks like an Olympic logo/icon for wheelchair racing…

  • bob

    Logo is terrible. Article author is stunningly gorgeous.

  • Pal

    Should we change all the other pictograms so that they are running?

  • BeggarBoy

    Good start, but needs some refining, something about it is off, not sure what, though.

    • Kwadgirl

      I think if the elbows weren’t so high, it’d be bang on for an everyday depiction. Right now, they look like they are late to catch a bus!

  • Maija Haavisto

    I really like the idea. I think it probably looks weird to some simply because it is so new. If it had been plastered everywhere for 20 years, no one would complain.

    • Tim

      No they wouldn’t complain. Except that they would still be trying to redesign it now because somebody else would be complaining about it.

  • Owen

    Erm, have they missed the point that its not just related to people in wheelchairs? now it looks like my grandma who had a stroke is now super powered! All the icon is doing is shifting the focus of who it is about from the people who genuinely are refined to a life that suggested by the icon, to a life life of a paralympian. Yes I see its trying to empower people by saying “this is what they actually look like” but its just as much of a lie as the current one. Not saying its an easy task to fix either. but this deffo isn’t a true solution, simply one that tries to empower and not offend.

  • Jone

    Some harsh comments for what I think is actually a quite nice redesign.

  • bret

    What about individuals who cannot travel at warp speed in their wheelchairs? What about paraplegics? This icon singles them out as inferior because they cannot achieve this kind of movement. Oh wait… that was not the intention of the icon? The icon was intended for good and positive things associated with a particular group of people? SO WAS THE ORIGINAL. Stop taking offense to everything; just because something is old does not make it ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ or ‘insensitive’. Maybe… just maybe… when the original icon was designed it represented the natural state of almost everyone who is in a wheelchair, upright, calm and collected. Not spazzing through life. This icon makes a mockery of anyone who is handicapped and someone is clearly trying to profit from their situation (via fame, fortune or otherwise).

    Also, ‘icon’ or ‘logo’ are both acceptable, but ‘icon’ is probably more appropriate..

    • Mike

      Paraplegics have full use of their arms. You mean quadriplegics. Don’t argue it with me because I’ve been a paraplegic since birth. That being said I don’t disagree with you here. There’s something very off about this to me. Some kind of social message that may not have to be said. Not sure how I feel about it exactly as throughout my life a large number of people have treated me as an invalid or somebody with a mental disability while many others haven’t ever treated me as lesser than them. To assume the majority of the general public feels as if those of us who are disabled are also UNABLE seems unfair to me.

  • k

    That is all nice and feel-good-ish, but this is not how things are. People are in a wheelchair for a reason. In all cases they have lost control over large parts of their bodies, especially the lower limbs. Hence the wheelchair.

    If you change perception you also might create unrealistic expectations. Why would you want that?

  • k

    I say: why not just make it really cool and remove the wheelchair altogether?

  • Mark

    Absolutely awful idea. Rather than an icon which depicts disability, and to a few people, that they’re passive and inactive, we now have an icon which depicts a fast-moving disabled person who has control of his arms to move themselves. All of the additional information that this icon gives is completely irrelevant to the situations it’s used in.
    It feels like someone wanted to make something politically correct without actually thinking “why we do we use this icon”.

  • FloydLaw

    I don’t like this for a number of reasons.

    First, it’s graphically confusing. When I first saw it, I was wondering how the stick figure had gotten so mangled that his arm was down by his torso. Is the person sideways? Are they falling off the chair? Are they in a blender? From afar and on signs, it’ll read like a mess.

    Secondly, it implies a class system to handicapped. Are non-athletic handicapped people with CP or ALS not included? What about elderly people who aren’t able to speed around on their tricked-out chairs? Like the icons for “man” & “woman”, the original icon is a static, neutral pose. The idea for these icons is to be *inclusive*, not exclusive.

    If you want to use this as a logo for your company or your event, do what you want. But google “paralympic icons” and you’ll see dozens of examples that are superior to this. As a redesign of an icon, this fails.

  • Doodpants

    Nice article, but I wish it had included a picture of the old icon for comparison.

  • Drav

    It honestly feels like a logo for a wheelchair racing team. Call me a jerk, but it’d be nice if we focused on things that are actively hurting people like trafficking etc. If it makes disabled people happy, then cool i guess =)