The International Symbol of Access has been around since 1968, and is among the most recognizable symbols in the world. A blue square containing a white stick figure in a wheelchair, its message is instantly translatable, regardless of country or culture.
But sporting goods retailer Decathlon Canada felt the ISA was too restrictive, defining people by their disability rather than their abilities. Working with its agency partner Rethink, Decathlon has reinterpreted the ISA as “Ability Signs” that depict the sign’s stick figures pursuing a wide range of sporting activities.
These 18 “Ability Signs,” which appear on parking spaces and signs in Decathlon’s flagship store in Brossard, Que., show the wheelchair users engaged in everything from archery and basketball to handball and weight-lifting. “At Decathlon, our mission is to make sports accessible to the many,” said Decathlon in a recent social post announcing the new signs. “We’re celebrating sports enthusiasts who have physical disabilities.”
The work is the embodiment of Decathlon’s longtime positioning statement “Sports for all. All for sports,” said Rethink partner, creative director Xavier Blais. “They’re a really action-oriented company that empowers community initiatives in its markets.”
Decathlon has also made the Ability Signs available on a dedicated website called AbilitySigns.ca, allowing businesses and individuals to use them rights free under a Creative Commons license. There are also Instagram stickers that can be used to edit individual signage.
“It’s quite a good fit for them,” said Blais. “They’ve always been known for accessibility in terms of price and [product]. It’s outrageous the amount of equipment they have in their stores for sports you don’t necessarily think about. They have things for sports like horseback riding. They’ve always been about providing everything for every sport at a super-affordable price.”
Launched in France in 1976, Decathlon has grown to 1,600 stores in 50 countries. It entered Canada in 2018, and has grown to 10 stores in Quebec and Ontario, with its first Alberta store opening soon in Calgary.
“As we continue our expansion into Canada, we want to ensure that we are providing Canadian athletes, both beginners and pros alike, with everything they need,” said Decathlon’s chief marketing officer, Jaylone Lee. “This includes an experiential store setting, the best value for your money, and a positive community impact.
“The Ability Signs initiative is a unique way to reinforce this positive community impact. Our stores across the country have plans to install our Ability Signs over the coming months.”
It’s not the first time that someone has attempted to update the ISA. In 2011, a Cambridge, Mass. artist named Sara Hendren created a visual update showing someone in a wheelchair leaning forward and clearly propelling it forward, and began pasting the transparent stickers, guerrilla-style, over existing signs in the city.
Hendren, the mother of a son with Down’s Syndrome, pointed out at the time that the figure in the ISA is “static, wooden, with the squared-off geometry of machinery.” The body in the symbol is synonymous with the chair, she said, creating the impression of someone requiring a push to navigate their way through the world.
Since then, the Accessible Icon Project has been adopted by cities such as New York and New Bern, North Carolina, and in 2014 the Museum of Modern Art added it to an exhibit called “A Collection of Ideas,” alongside such other culturally significant symbols as the ubiquitous “@” symbol and the pin used to mark locations on Google Maps.