The disability symbol — that familiar, white stick figure in a wheelchair set against a blue background — may be flawed, but it’s here to stay for a while longer.

On Friday afternoon, Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley, along with Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, showed off the two top designs from the Reimagining Accessibility competition, launched with hope of replacing the wheelchair symbol.

Onley called both new symbols “brilliant,” but said they fell short of conveying the complex needs of people with disabilities.

Potential logo

This design, one of two honourable mentions in the Reimagining Accessibility contest, will be developed further, Onley said. (Office of Lieutenant Governor of Ontario)

What was asked of the designers, Onley admitted, was “far more complex than we thought.”

Both of the honourable mentions selected have a future, Onley said. One of the winning designs featured a series of four symbols, each representing a different need. The other was a blue and white opening door, set inside a circle.

If the designers choose to keep working on the projects, they will be given assistance from the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD). 

While no winner was selected on Friday, change is not a far-fetched idea in this area. New York City recently updated its disability symbol — it’s still a stick figure in a wheelchair, but the figure appears to be in motion rather than sitting still.

Other examples include local Toronto toy shop Mastermind, which has made its own playful signage for people in wheelchairs, and the Beijing Paralympics, which designed fresh symbols for the Games.

Designing a new symbol

CBC News tagged along with one group of design students as they embarked on the project.

“I think it’s an incredibly difficult process,” said Geordie Graham, an OCAD student.

OCAD design

Graham's OCAD group came up with this take on the wheelchair symbol. (Submitted)

“You’re afraid as a designer — you don’t want to leave people out … we want to make sure that we lend a voice for people beyond just those in a wheelchair.”

Graham’s group also wanted to humanize the figure in the logo and add a sense of movement. And they wanted to find a way to create signage that would let people with cognitive issues navigate the urban landscape.

But whatever they designed had to be simple enough that a work crew could paint it onto a parking spot with a stencil.

In just a month — a far shorter timeframe than most of the students are used to — they had a symbol. Or, more accurately a series of symbols: a new take on the wheelchair symbol, as well as symbols for cognitive impairment, visual impairment and even one to alert people that sign language is available.

Anne Jackson, an OCAD student and group member, says it’s all about letting people with disabilities understand what’s in store for them.

“If we can do that, even in just some small way with a few symbols, it would be a great thing to do,” Jackson said.

“I look at all symbols to do with disabilities totally differently.”

Onley calls for change

Onley believes the current symbol has flaws.

“I still only see an ‘it’,” said Onley, who uses a motorized scooter.

“People tend to forget that the original symbol didn’t even have a head on it.”

The current symbol does have one thing going for it, which is almost universal recognition. But in Onley’s eyes that’s not a good enough reason to keep it.

Onley was hoping the competition — which drew more than 100 entries from around the world — would produce a symbol that’s inclusive and human.

Any future disability design hoping to replace the wheelchair symbol would have to be approved by the International Organization for Standardization. The original symbol has been around since 1968, when it was designed by Susanne Koefoed of Denmark.