77% of UK adults don’t know what the International Symbol of Access is

The International Symbol of Access (ISA) – a blue square with a white outline of a person in a wheelchair – is most commonly used on toilet doors, in car parks and on public transport. Designed in 1968, the ISA has been adopted internationally. 

However, our nationally representative poll of 3,000 UK adults has found that more than three-quarters of people (77%) do not understand what the ISA means. Passenger Assistance commissioned this research via our parent company Transreport, to explore perceptions and understandings of accessibility and accessible facilities.

  • Just under four in ten (39%) UK adults believe this sign applies only to wheelchair users, even though only 8% of disabled people use a wheelchair.
  • 30% believe this sign means ‘disabled people only’. 
  • Just 23% identified the correct meaning, which is that the sign indicates that ‘building features are suitable for disabled people (wording provided by The Office for Disability Issues, part of the Department for Work and Pensions).

Unwanted policing of accessible facilities

Our survey revealed that 1 in 4 (24%) people would challenge someone for using accessible facilities if they suspected they weren’t eligible. 

It also showed that people who misunderstand the meaning of the sign are more likely to challenge others for using accessible facilities if they believed they were not entitled to use them. People who believe the sign means ‘disabled people only’ are significantly more likely to challenge others. 20% said they have challenged someone in the past and 17% said they would if they believed they weren’t entitled to use the facilities.

The research also revealed that older people are more likely to challenge users of accessible facilities and men are twice as likely as women to challenge someone. 21% of over-65s said they’d challenge someone for using accessible facilities, compared to just 8% of 25-34-year-olds.

27% of Londoners say they have challenged someone using accessible facilities, compared to 13% nationally. 

A statement  from Jay Shen, Passenger Assistance founder

“We suspected there was a level of confusion about the actual meaning of the sign, but we were surprised by the number of people who incorrectly identified its meaning. This tells us there is work to be done to raise awareness about what accessible spaces are really for and who is entitled to use them. 

“We also need to continue to demystify some of the myths around impairment and disabled people’s experiences. For example, fewer than 8% of disabled people use a wheelchair, yet more than almost four in ten people believe the ISA refers exclusively to wheelchair users.

“I’d like to see more done to add context to this sign, according to where it is displayed. For example, the sign has different meanings depending on whether it’s in a car park, on a bathroom door or next to a ramp. As a company, we believe that improving experiences for disabled people necessarily improves things for everyone. Everybody benefits when accessibility is improved.”

Stop policing accessible facilities, urges campaigner Dr Amy Kavanagh

Dr Amy Kavanagh is an award-winning disability right activist and campaigner. Here’s what she has to say about our findings.

“We need society to understand that disability isn’t always visible and access needs aren’t always obvious. As a blind person, I’ve been challenged using accessible toilet facilities, there’s an assumption that they are only for wheelchair users. It’s humiliating when you’re waiting to use the toilet to be told off like a naughty child because someone doesn’t understand or listen to your needs.”

“For example, I need an accessible toilet as it’s safer and easier to navigate, the layout is consistent and there is space for my guide dog, it gives me dignity and privacy. There is an assumption that the public are doing disabled people a service by challenging ‘fakers’, but usually they’re actually making life more difficult for people with invisible disabilities, like autism, Crohn’s, mental health conditions or chronic illnesses. 

What I really want people to challenge are access barriers, broken lifts, restaurants not having a braille menu or sign language interpreters not being provided for medical appointments. If you want to support disabled people, call out the failures to include us in society instead of policing the limited accessible services we have.

If you have a disability and you’re looking for insight into travel and exploration throughout the UK, take a look at the Passenger Assistance blog we’ve written about travelling alone as a disabled person, accessible days out in the UK, and plenty of travel tips and destination highlights for your next trip. 

More information about the study;

OnePoll surveyed a nationally representative sample of 3,000 UK adults, on behalf of Transreport and Passenger Assistance, between the dates of 22/03/2022 and 30/03/2022. OnePoll are members of ESOMAR and employs members of the Marketing Research Society.