Defining the ISA: Disabilities and All
Disabled people are in different parts of the world, but the fact of the matter is that their existence makes it so that accommodations must be available to them internationally. The International Symbol of Access or ISA, better known as the handicapped symbol, serves the purpose of accommodating people with disabilities wherever the symbol is shown. It is important to analyze the ideology, Stuart Hall defines as, “those images, concepts and premises which provide the frameworks through which we represent, interpret, understand and ‘make sense’ of some aspect of social existence” (Hall 81). The ISA is associated within the United States government and media, in the way it symbolizes disabilities. The importance is based on the ISA being an iconic symbol and the disabled people being represented by said symbol. There are more than just physical disabilities to be represented by that symbol, and only that symbol. The debates around this symbol are to make modifications to it or keep it the same, but it needs to be revised in terms of the associations to it, because that is the problem not the actual image. This change will make the ISA stand for its initial purpose and distinguish disabilities individually.
The ISA was designed by Susan Koefoed in 1968, upon the request of the Rehabilitation International’s International Commission on Technology and Accessibility (ICTA). This came to be because there was an ongoing need for a symbol to “designate accessible facilities” and “different access symbols were already in use in France, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States”. The story then went that Karl Montan, first Director of the Swedish Handicap Institute and Chair of the RI International Commission for Technical Aids (ICTA) was asked if the organization could make a design in time to present to the Eleventh World Congress in Dublin in 1969. Requirements for the symbol were that it “must be readily identifiable from a reasonable distance; must be self-descriptive, must be simple yet esthetically designed with no secondary meaning, and must be practical,” to these requirements Susan Koefoed, a Danish graphic design student, responded and submitted her design, a simple motif of a stick figure using a wheelchair that indicated accessibility. The winner was Koefoed’s design as it was unanimously chosen and then the World Congress formally adopted the symbol in 1969. The ICTA copyrighted the symbol and knowledge of Susan Koefoed’s whereabouts are unknown after this time; she disappeared as the sign became an icon. Distribution of the sign then followed and was successful with the help of 3M, a corporation that sells self-adhesives. Then “there was some debate over whether to patent the design,” however it was decided that option would be too complex. So, “a resolution magnanimously was put forward recommending that it be made a gift to mankind” (Symbol of Access). The process of making the symbol official was very time consuming, but the amount of effort put into caused it to become widespread and iconic.
The ISA, as an acronym seems really important and when people see it that is the case as well. The symbol is made to appear as a person in a wheelchair, but it does so beyond simplicity. The shape outlining the symbol is a rectangle and inside is the figurine. The figure is sitting at about eighty-five degrees with it’s knees half-bent and it’s feet on foot rests. It is in between a stick figure and a sort of block-looking body. It’s arms are straight forward and it is facing to the right. The head is represented by an oval, but there is no facial expression or features, it is blank. The only representation of a wheelchair is a half circle under the figure’s waist and calves. The figure has absolutely no curves or sign of fat, or hair, or accessories. There is no personality for the figure, it’s gender is unknown, and the disability is unknown, just that they are wheelchair bound. The wheelchair is only a basic wheelchair representation, no handle bars or a motor for electric wheelchairs. The color of the figure and wheelchair is usually white, while the rest of the rectangle is a generic blue color, unless the symbol is engraved somehow, then these colors do not apply (Koefoed). The size of the symbol depends on where it is located. There is no identity to this symbol, besides a person in a wheelchair, but somehow plain and simple works in most cases, as long the size of the sign is visible enough. The iconic symbol is intended for the use of disabled people accessibility, but it has come to be seen as an ideology for any disability.
The ISA started as a symbol that would show areas of accessibility, but as time went on more people with disabilities were born, and people started associating the word ‘disabled/disability’ with the ISA. A dictionary definition of disability is, “inability to pursue an occupation because of a physical or mental impairment” (Merriam-Webster Online), which shows that the ISA does not fit the definition perfectly, because wheelchair bound people, are not always mentally disabled as well, in fact there are people that are only affected in the spine, not the brain. As Liat Ben-Moshe and Justin J.W. Powell say the ISA has “become arguably the most widely recognized representation of disability” (Ben-Moshe and Powell 489). Hall explains that “ideologies do not consist of isolated and separate concepts” which is why since disabled people’s rights started to be advocated and heard by the government, the ISA and it’s associations has spread into everyday life. The ISA serves it’s purpose but, “recognition, awareness, boundary drawing and even identity formation also result from usage of the ISA, intended or not,” the impact of all these factors are difficult to measure, but their importance cannot be denied (Ben-Moshe and Powell 493). It is almost like the disabled person looses all personality; they become the ISA and are viewed that way. The ISA represents disability and designates spaces where it can exist, but it also defines the boundaries of physical otherness, (Ben-Moshe and Powell 494) which shows the limits disabled people are confined to. The ISA has become not just as a symbol of access, but of the meaning of disability itself, (Ben-Moshe and Powell 495) which makes the symbol unfair to viewers and users because they do not get the individual’s identity. There is also the issue of keeping the symbol politically correct, so that there are no lawsuits against the government and no people offended, “debate and dialogue about access symbols reflects, and should refer to, the politics of disability representation, especially given the lack of democratically organized decision-making about such a key symbol of and for disabled people” (Ben-Moshe and Powell 496). The ISA represents access for disabled people, as it’s name suggests, not just wheelchair users, (Ben-Moshe and Powell 497) but some disabilities do not identify at all with the symbol, and invisible disabilities like dyslexia do not really have a need to park in disabled parking, when they can walk. There is the disability that is only for a certain amount of time, like a broken leg, then there is old age, blindness, deaf, mute, and mental disabilities. Even when there are people that are in a wheelchair, like the ISA, there are still various physical body diseases that cause being wheelchair bound. The mistakes of the symbol include, the circle on the stick figure representing a head can lead viewers to interpreting the ISA with personification. The symbol also produces ambiguity over the terms of ‘disability’ or ‘person’. “Although the figure in the symbol refers to a human being, the contour represents mostly the wheelchair, which reinforces a common cultural misconception that people with mobility impairments are ‘confined’ or ‘bound’ to their wheelchairs” (Ben-Moshe 498). The confinement of the wheelchair is inaccurate because although people may be wheelchair bound, eventually they get out of their chair for necessary reasons. Nonetheless, the ISA created the ongoing disability movement that caused a ripple effect to better the lives of disabled people.
A major component that came after the ISA is the American Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into effect July 26, 1990 by President George Bush. The ADA is applied to many locations in the United States, buildings must be accessible and there cannot be any discrimination due to one’s disability. “The ADA applies to qualified individuals with disabilities who (1) have physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities; (2) have a record of such impairments; or (3) are regarded as having such impairments. In addition, the ADA protects persons from discrimination based on an association or relationship with an individual with a disability,” (Asenjo 113) and more than anything the ADA is evident in the work environment, meaning they can have certain accommodations in the workforce. The ADA is an act to be taken seriously, since it is enforced under the same procedures applicable to race, color, sex, national origin, and religious discrimination under title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991 (Asenjo 114) which means if it is not followed there could be incriminating charges. The ADA, unlike the ISA has modifications made from time to time, to satisfy the ongoing needs of disabled persons.
Another aspect the ISA falls under is the United States Department of Transportation, with the symbol on license plates and temporary disabled placards. As of April 10, 1991 the cars rules have been implemented, the Informed System for Handicapped Parking requires all state license plates issued to people with a disability to include a three-inch-square image of the ISA for people with long-term disabilities (Travel Advisory; Parking Rules For the Disabled). For short-term or temporary disabilities, there must be placards available of the same size and color, to be hung from a car's rear-view mirror, which clearly display the symbol. Disabled drivers have the right to more than one copy of the placard so it can also be displayed in multiple car owners (Travel Advisory; Parking Rules For the Disabled). The matter of parking in an accessible spot is serious to the last detail, because those with temporary disabilities, such as a broken leg, a placard will be available, with a doctor's authorization, granting disability parking status for up to six months. The temporary placards will be red, while the placards for permanent disability are blue and they will list the issuing state and the date of expiration (Travel Advisory; Parking Rules For the Disabled). There is also the accommodation of cars with ramps for wheelchairs, and rentals, along with the parking placard.
When we put things into perspective the United States is quite advanced in the disability movement, compared to other countries, even though the disabled symbol is international. For example, in Canada the intent to move forward into a disability movement seems impossible because there are so many reactions towards advocating for the disabled that the community at large cannot come to an agreement. The different reactions to a federal disability law can create challenges for the disability movement in building a consensus, to bring various groups together that communicate a clear message to government representative, and in how to raise public awareness of disability issues, (Prince 201) which makes Canada’s improvement seem as if it were not tangible. The United States is even a role model for Canada, and serves as a guide as to how the ADA came to be from the ISA, the Canadian audience, given their system of federalism, is interested in how the legislation relates to intergovernmental relations, basically how the law is incorporated into the disability movement (Prince 203). However, it seems people in the United States are not happy with their current situation, “A majority of respondents (60 percent) rated accessibility better for Title IV (telecommunications), while just under half (48 percent) rated accessibility for Title II (public sector) better, and only one-third of respondents (32 percent) rated access for Title III (private sector) better since the passage of the ADA,” (Prince 204) even when Canada has less accommodations for the disabled. Every country has different disability accommodations, but the ISA is in all of them.
A place where we see the ISA almost everywhere is in the United States. Since it is a requirement in any public buildings the symbol can be seen several times a day, if one is out and about. So, the initial place one sees the ISA is the parking lot, it is used to show there is an easier and closer entrance to said building. The symbol is of the blue and white colors, usually on a pole or mounted on the wall. Once one is approaching the building there should be an ISA, probably just the figure, no color. Next to the ISA or on it should be a mechanical button, that when pushed will open the door. The other place that has the ISA is the outside of a public bathroom, either on the door or the wall next to the door. There may or may not be a button that will open the bathroom, but the ISA indicates that there is a larger stall for the disabled, and a sink that has easier access, either by being lower or not having a pipe under it. Another example would be larger dressing rooms in clothing stores. These examples show that there is consideration of the disabled, but also that wherever the ISA is not located the disabled people cannot access it. All of these examples are for the physically disabled because they need the accessibility to go to public places, but there are people out there that are not even disabled in any way possible and still use some of these services. The idea that something is made for a particular group of people and can just be abused by others is confusing to why disabled people are labeled sometimes by those that use the ISA illegally.
The problem with the ISA being the ideology of people with disabilities is that the idea forgets to mention that everyone associated with the ISA is not wheelchair bound. In television shows there is sometimes the character that has a disability, mainly being wheelchair bound or blind. Hall explains the way media has a huge influence on an ideology, “The media are not only a powerful source of ideas about race. They are also one place where these ideas are articulated, worked on, transformed and elaborated,” (Hall 82). People with disabilities are often produced in a matter that evokes the audience with pity and fear. Artie from the hit show, Glee, becomes a paraplegic after a drunk driver crashed with his vehicle. This shows the instance of how someone can be perfectly fine one moment and the next be bound to a wheelchair for life (Fox Television Shows). The viewer is now aware it can happen to them, or the opposite situation, if one drinks and drives the possibility of ruining someone’s mobility is a consequence, not to mention the lawsuit. Another example is the show Degrassi, where a character named Jimmy is shot after a prank makes a classmate very mad and said classmate shoots Jimmy (TV.com). This example instills fear in the consequences of playing pranks, but both of these examples are a cause and effect. There are people born with a physical disability as well, but those are rarely if at all mentioned in shows. Maybe it is so because the idea of conceiving a baby and it being born with a disability invokes fear in conceiving overall, and that would probably not bring higher ratings. The importance is based on the truth of all disabilities, and the ISA simply standing for itself, not the words ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’. The spread of this ideology in television should serve as a means to adapt to the growing disability community and create a larger understanding of the disabilities and people associated with the ISA.