Revamping the Handicap Accessible Symbol

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After more than 45 years, the handicap symbol is getting a pretty serious redesign and it couldn’t be more deserving. The old, stiff logo never really represented the lives that handicapped people are living, but with the redesign, the image of handicapped people is changing just like many perceptions of many people.

The old symbol was the result of a competition won in 1968 by Danish student Susanne Koefoed. The original featured a headless, inactive body in a wheelchair with arms extended outward. It was soon modified slightly – basically, a head was added – and incorporated into the International Organization for Standardization’s collection of symbols for equipment.

The design has received updates and proposed redesigns throughout the years, some of them pushing the body forward and connecting the arms to the wheelchair to make the person depicted appear more active. One such redesign, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, caught artist Sara Hendren’s eye several years ago. She authored a blog post about the symbol and then began thinking up alternatives to the classic symbol, eventually joining forces with Brian Glenny, a philosophy professor and urban artist. The two began making stickers as part of a guerilla art project and placed them on signs around Boston.

They knew their mildly illegal act would be a pretty good angle by which they could raise the conversation that they wanted. That conversation wasn’t really about the symbol’s graphic qualities, but it was about how handicapped people are represented in public ways and what this symbol guarantees as political access.

The two eventually joined up with Tim Ferguson-Sauder to create the latest iteration of the design and released it into the public domain. They later formed the Accessible Icon Project to promote its use and the icon was eventually adopted by companies, nonprofit groups and cities, including Cambridge, Mass., El Paso, Tex., and New York among others. But the redesign was met with some criticism, too.

Some who have shown opposition to the redesign have spoken to the revamping by saying that it represents more of the Paralympic athletes, wheelchair races, and speedy movements. They also claim that the symbol has to work in static situations. Part of the job is to mark where wheelchair spaces in public transportation or indicate refuge in emergency situations, as well as lifts and restrooms.

The design, which positions the wheelchair and person moving in a forward motion, carries several meanings. “The arm pushing a chair is symbolic – as all icons are symbols, not literal representations,” Hendren wrote. “Our symbol speaks to the general primacy of personhood, and to the notion that the person first decides how and why he or she will navigate the world, in the broadest literal and metaphorical terms.”

This is also how Hendren views the movement to replace the icon: it’s a metaphor for taking action and rethinking disability.

“The very beginning of it is about altering an image, but the real work of the project is a king of sustained conversation about disability rights,” Hendren says. That is a conversation she maintains at her personal web site and in interviews about the design as well as through the Accessible Icon Project. The group is retooling its web site to serve as a forum for that discussion.