The International Symbol of Access (ISA) was designed by Susanne Koefed in 1968 at the request of Rehabilitation International’s International Commission on Technology and Accessibility (ICTA). Copyrighted by the Committee, it was decided to make the use of this symbol open to all.
Development of the Symbol of Access
An important byproduct of the accessibility movement and growing attention to barrier free design, was the International Symbol of Access promoted by the Society.
By the late 1960s, the need for a symbol to designate accessible facilities was being discussed in a number of countries. In fact, different access symbols were already in use in France, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. This was evidently also an idea of interest in Asia as a theme of the 1968 RI Pan-Pacific Rehabilitation Conference was “Promotion of Non-Handicapped Physical Environments for Disabled People.” As Norman Acton recalled some years later, “a number of different symbols were beginning to appear and several of us could see a messy situation developing with multiple symbols – so there was some urgency.”
Acton asked Karl Montan, first Director of the Swedish Handicap Institute and Chair of the RI International Commission for Technical Aids (ICTA) if they could come up with a viable design in time to present to the Eleventh World Congress in Dublin in 1969. The stipulations were that the symbol 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.
Montan agreed to take on the project and arranged for the Scandinavian Design Students Organization to tackle the assignment. Ms. Susanne Koefoed, a Danish graphic design student, submitted the winning design, a simple motif of a stick figure using a wheelchair to indicate barrier-free access. The new symbol was presented to an expert panel convened under the auspices of the Society’s Center for Technical Aids, in Bromma, Sweden, in 1968. The symbol met with general approval, particularly after it was modified by Karl Montan. Taking the original copy of the submitted design, Montan ‘humanized’ it further by adding a circle to the top of the seated figure, thus giving it a ‘head.’ With the addition of the ‘head’, the panel gave its enthusiastic endorsement to the new symbol. The international panel of design chose Koefoed’s design unanimously and the World Congress formally adopted the Symbol in 1969.
Sharing the Symbol with the World
Distribution of the symbol was the next order of business. The effort was greatly assisted by 3M corporation which contributed a large supply of the symbol on self-adhesive materials. Fenmore Seton, later President of RI, contributed another large supply. Acton opened negotiations with the International Organization for Standardization (the ISO) in Geneva, whose membership includes the standard-setting organs of most governments. The ISO incorporated the symbol into their library of internationally recognized symbols with formal specifications as to dimensions and use.
Following its adoption, the Society’s final step was to consider how best to promote the Symbol. Within the Society, there was some debate over whether to patent the design. It was decided however, that this would prove particularly complex, as such patents must be enacted on a country by country basis. Besides the objective was not to restrict use, but to ensure good usage. It was decided that public education and promotion would be more effective in ensuring that the symbol would be always kept in the public domain. To that end, the Society drew up guidelines for the use of the symbol and a resolution magnanimously was put forward recommending that it be made a gift to mankind. This resolution was adopted at a subsequent meeting in the Society’s Assembly in Baguio, Philippines in 1978. Download the Resolution as pdf or Word file.
RI and the United Nations
The Symbol of Access quickly gained wide acceptance and within the decade became a universally used way of designating an accessible facility. The single largest boost to universal adoption of the Symbol and the fledgling barrier free design movement took place in 1974, when a United Nations Experts meeting was organized by Rehabilitation International at the UN’s request, on the topic. The imprimatur of the United Nations provided a technical backing for the Symbol that gave it a universal stature comparable to that granted several years earlier by the International Organization for Standards (ISO).