Back in 2011, Sara Hendren — a design and disability-studies researcher — teamed up with the graffitti artist and philosophy professor Brian Glenney to redesign the International Symbol of Access. Often known as the "Wheelchair Symbol", it had been around for almost 50 years, but Glenney and Hendren thought the symbol — a blocky, immobile figure — was too passive.
So they designed the icon you see above, one that makes the figure much more active. Then they engaged in a street-art campaign, printing up 1,000 of the icons as transparent stickers that were pasted onto old-school Wheelchair-Symbol signs around Boston. Since you could still see the old sign through the transparent overlay, Glenney and Hendren's goal was to make passersby think about the meaning of that old symbol.
The new "Accessible Icon" — as it's been called — grew so famous that it's been informally adopted in locations around the world, employed by a US Department of Treasury sign, and included in MOMA's permanent collection. (The final version, above, was tweaked by graphic designer Tim Ferguson Sauder to make the icon comply with professional standards.)
As it turns out, though, people with disabilities disagree over whether the new symbol is better than the old one. Atlas Obscura has a fascinating piece outlining the various views:
Mike Mort, who runs the blog Disabled Identity, also favors the new icon. "I don't mind the older symbol," he says, "but I definitely think this is a step, roll if you will, in the right direction. To me, the more active look of the 'revamped' icon better represents the freedom and equality that accessibility truly brings." It might not represent him absolutely—Mort is a power-chair user—but he appreciates the meaning behind it, and acknowledges that "it's impossible to capture the diverse experiences and needs of the disabled community with a singular design."
Some detractors do object to the design itself, and what it might imply, however. In 2016, CT News Junkie quoted Cathy Ludlum, from Manchester, Connecticut, who spoke publicly about Connecticut's embrace of the new icon. Ludlum has spinal muscular atrophy and professed her preference for the old symbol. "The old symbol leaves everything up to the imagination," she said. "The new symbol seems to say that independence has everything to do with the body, which it doesn't. Independence is who you are inside." Like the figure in the old symbol, she said, "I am blocky and rigid."
Others are more concerned about its origins. Glenney speaks with clear regret about the people who see it as ableist, "because the people that designed it weren't people with disabilities. That's definitely something that I'm sympathetic to, I agree with," he says. "Had we known that our little street art project was going to change into something that was an advocacy project, we wouldn't have done it the way that we did it. We would have essentially taken a back seat, and worked with people with disabilities, and have them design it and apply it. We would have just collaborated with them."
Read the whole piece; it's a super intriguing dive into the power and freight of these very public symbols.
(Image above via The Accessible Icon Project)