New accessibility icon better reflects the lifestyles of people with disabilities

In the coming years, a new image of accessibility will appear on signs in parking lots, buildings and other locations across the state.

Thanks to a new state law, current blue signs portraying wheelchair users as passive and inactive will be replaced with a new accessibility icon that better reflects the lifestyles of people with disabilities. Also, the word “handicapped” will be removed.

The change reflects the shift of thinking about disabilities over the past half-century, which has seen the rise of the Civil Rights Movement for People with Disabilities, leading to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

Although no symbol can ever effectively convey the range and diversity of disability experiences, many people in the disability community have indicated that the stiff and static representation of the international symbol of accessibility (ISA) is outdated and contributes to the stigma around disability, says Brad Hastings, who is the advocacy and certified ADA coordinator for Disability Network West Michigan. 

Opening discussions

“It can portray an image of helplessness and dependence,” Hastings says. “The updated ‘Go Logo’ shows a dynamic figure in motion on a wheelchair. This symbol shows that wheelchairs give people mobility and allow them to move about the world. 
Brad Hastings is advocacy and American with Disabilities coordinator for Disability Network West Michigan.
“This symbol can open up people’s minds and start discussions about disability and the endless number of ways it can impact a person. As soon as someone says, “Well, why did they change the symbol?” there is an opportunity to educate them about people with disabilities being active members of their communities when they have the opportunity to do so.” 

Disability Network/Michigan (DN/M), whose members advocate for independent living for people with disabilities, has worked for several years to address the current design, adopted in 1969. 

The new design shows the wheelchair user’s arm pushing the chair. The organization says that symbolically speaks to the general primacy of personhood, and to the notion that the person first decides how and why they will navigate the world in literal and metaphorical terms. 

Removing the word “handicapped” and using “reserved” limits the perpetuation of antiquated and offensive language used when referring to people with disabilities. 

“We have been working incredibly hard to promote the slogan “changing signs, changing minds,’ and educating our community and businesses on being more inclusive,” says Diane Fleser, CEO of Disability Network West Michigan. “We are pleased that the Legislature and the governor agreed that it was time for an update, considering the old logo was created prior to the height of the Disability Rights Movement. We’ve already had local businesses updating their signage to show their support.”

No additional costs for businesses

Businesses are not required to replace their signs immediately. Instead, businesses must use the updated signs when they are placing new or replacing current signs. Therefore, there are no new or additional costs to businesses or taxpayers.

“The new ISA logo depicts a greater sense of independence and recognizes that people with disabilities are active participants in their communities. The “Go Logo” also destroys the misconception that wheelchair users are limited in their mobility,” says Stacey Trowbridge, who is the director of community development for Disability Network Lakeshore, which serves Ottawa and Allegan counties.

Stacey Trowbridge is director of community development for Disability Network Lakeshore.

Michigan isn’t the first state to adopt the new icon. New York and Connecticut have implemented similar legislation.

The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, worked closely with Disability Network Michigan to create the legislation. DN/M represents Michigan’s 15 Centers for Independent Living, which served 43,588 people with disabilities last year. The organization’s focus is on leadership development, relationship building, effective communication and mobilizing around issues that will have the greatest impact on delivering high-quality independent living services to people with disabilities.

“The new logo shows that individuals with disabilities play an active role in the community and aren’t just sitting in a chair letting life pass them by,” LaFave says. “It’s not about political correctness; it’s about showing the true relationship between people and the devices that assist them. 

“It’s not 1968 anymore. It’s time to portray the new reality. As a person living an active life with a disability, I’m proud to stand on the front lines to instigate this important change.”

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.

Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.