The problem with the wheelchair international symbol of access

By That’s My Spot

A white wheelchair sitting in a blue square – the international face of disabled parking we are all so familiar with.
But when 9 out of 10 disabilities are “invisible” disabilities, is the wheelchair really the right symbol to represent accessible parking?

A wheelchair reflects the physical, visible disabilities, that as humans, we can connect with because we can see them. Is using this symbol inadvertently perpetuating the “myth” that access to disabled parking should only be given to people with physical and therefore visible disabilities?

Should we be using an international symbol for accessible parking that is more inclusive of all “non-visible” disabilities?

Why does it even matter?
As we all know in the parking industry, accessible parking is and always has been a hotly debated topic. The provision of disabled parking permits is often seen as contentious. And even more so when the impression creeps in that the permit holder or user is “not actually disabled” or “not disabled enough”, largely orientated around whether there is a “visible” disability.

For example, consider individuals with breathing difficulties, who can’t walk more than 10 metres without challenging their lung capacity. Consider people who live with debilitating liver issues, colostomy bags, dialysis, chronic pain, brain injuries, congestive heart failure, lung disease, MS, neurological disorders, lupus, and arthritis – and these are all just a few disabilities that can be invisible to an outsider. Such disabilities don’t always manifest themselves as either visible or occurring all of the time either.

People living with “invisible” disabilities experience an ongoing challenge – because they don’t have a physical wheelchair or mobility device, some parking vigilantes assume they are “rorting” the system around accessible parking.

Shockingly, and sadly, it often ends with some sort of unpleasant abuse – verbal, nasty notes left on windscreens, filthy looks, or physical damage to vehicles. There are so many groups and posts on social media where disabled parking permit holders have suffered abuse, rudeness, glares, and generally very unpleasant behaviour from others, questioning their “entitlement” to use an accessible parking bay. Too often, the argument seems to be framed around the misconception that these users don’t have a “wheelchair”.

Such abuse is appalling.

A shift in the public’s perception would go a long way towards ending the social policing that plagues the thousands of Australians with disabilities trying to go about their lives in a manner that keeps them safe and able to function with their disabilities. Disabled parking permit holders have already demonstrated their validity to the relevant authorities – they absolutely do not need to prove it to anyone else.

It is impossible to know at a glance whether or not someone requires a disability parking permit. Once someone has an Australian Disability Parking Permit, they can park in parking spaces showing the international symbol of access, and can receive concessions in most public parking spaces where the sign or meter shows specific time limits. Parents and carers of people with a disability can also use an accessible parking spot if they are transporting, dropping off, or picking up a person who has a permit themselves.

Does society’s opinion on disabled parking even matter?

Well, it’s quite interesting to note that the first and foremost priority listed by the NSW Disability Inclusion Action Plan is:

“Developing positive community attitudes and behaviours.”

Not to increase funding or amend existing laws, although those do factor in as well.

The DIAP action plan was created in conjunction with the affected communities and highlights how important this social attitude is towards ensuring accessible, inclusive cities are in fact manifestly accessible. This is in line with UN SDG Goal 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities.

None of this is to say that there aren’t significant numbers of people without a disability “abusing” disability parking (in fact, this is a huge issue for councils in Australia, who issue an average of 15,000 fines out to accessible parking abusers each year in NSW alone).

From parking permits being lent to friends and family, to motorists who steer into disability bays without regard, the issue of misused disability bays is voluminous and not going away anytime soon.

Perhaps part of combatting the perception that disabled parking bays are routinely abused may lie in curbing the actual rate of offending. Reducing the opportunities to misuse accessible parking bays benefits both valid disability parking permit holders as well as the perception of the “fairness” of accessible parking in general. Often fair use of accessible parking is enforced through secondary screening systems, such as the provision of photo ID or the installation of parking bollards to physically block users without a remote. Programs are adapting all the time to combat disability parking permit offenders, and they will continue to evolve to do so.

But should the fact that people sometimes abuse disability parking become a burden to those persons with “invisible” disabilities who genuinely require these accessible bays?

Of course not.

Curbing disability parking offenders goes hand-in-hand with educating the community at large on what constitutes offending in the first place. Simply lacking a wheelchair or visible indication of a disability certainly isn’t the standard.

And yet, perhaps the white wheelchair in a blue square is setting the stage for this false precedent and opening the door to ignorant assumptions, as well-intentioned and innocuous as the symbol may be.

When 9 out of 10 disabilities are “invisible”, I think there’s food for thought in the idea of broadening the scope of accessible parking bay representation.

This in the hopes of shifting public perception, ending the parking vigilantes, and making accessible parking more accessible for those with “invisible” disabilities, who should never have to pull into an accessible parking bay with the symbol of the wheelchair and feel disheartened that they might not be seen as “disabled enough”.

What do you think?

Angelique Mentis is the founder and CEO of

At we are committed to making a small difference to the lives of persons with disability by using our automated parking bollard technology to support individuals and car parking providers to provide fair and guaranteed access to disability car parking and to UN SDG Goal 11, Sustainable Cities and communities, providing accessible parking and transport solutions.


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