By Joan Leotta
What’s in a symbol? If it’s the existing accessibility icon, many people see opportunity, yes, but also passivity. For 20 years, the familiar wheelchair-shaped sign has pointed the way toward accessible parking spots, Web site features, and much more. However, it has also presented an image of a static wheelchair user, waiting, the symbol seemed to communicate, for someone else’s help. In 2011, a designer and mother of a son with Downs Syndrome decided to change that perception. In its new incarnation, the person in the chair looks more active, self-sufficient and ready to take on the world.
Two years ago Sara Hendren, a Harvard-educated graphic artist, noticed a variation of the traditional accessibility icon in a Massachusetts contemporary art museum and had an epiphany. She realized that the internationally-recognized symbol communicates a certain submissiveness on the part of the wheelchair rider. As the mother of a child with Downs Syndrome, she wished to update the icon to show more motion and self-reliance.
To that end, Hendren partnered with Brian Glenney, a philosophy professor at Gordon College, to form the Accessible Icon Project and reshape the icon—and, perhaps, the way people think about people with disabilities. While Hendren handled the artwork, Glenney, in his words, “focused on getting the message out and make it happen logistically.” The Project is now a 501(c)(3) organization that advocates for change to the more active symbol. (A fuller description of the dialogue that initiated the new icon design appears in more detail at http://ablersite.org/2010/03/29/ongoing-public-signs)
The new icon preserves the internationally-renowned seated wheelchair user but adds motion. The head is forward, the elbows are up, the wheels are moving, and the arms are doing the work of pushing. Though visually subtle, the changes present an image that is unquestionably dynamic.
Although the icon represents more than just wheelchair accessibility, Hendren and Glenney decided to keep the chair in their updated version because the symbol is already internationally recognized. Says Hendren, “Editing the old symbol maintains its integrity and practicality while also drawing attention to its importance as a symbol, far beyond the literal use of chairs.”
The Accessible Icon Project website site notes, “Regardless of the language or culture, people recognize this symbol. Its relational two-color combination and scale make it easy to spot when you’re scanning a crowded city street or an airport terminal. Icons are standardized, 2D and in high contrast, for a reason—to make them readily visible to anyone, anywhere. There’s power in that!”
Why bother to update a public icon, one that may seem to be just a means to an end? Glenney addresses this point. “Some say, ‘it’s just a symbol,’” he relates. “But the visual shapes our cognition in profound ways, some of which may be conscious but most of which is unconscious. Symbols also provoke conversation and dialogue. The symbolic matters.”
Hendren’s revision of the symbol is fully compliant with the Americans for Disabilities Act, which allows modifications of the icon. Slight variations on the historical International Symbol of Accessibility, as the existing symbol is officially known, are generally permissible as long as they clearly display a wheelchair and signify accessibility.
Partnering and Expanding
How does one go about changing an official icon, known internationally and present in myriad public places? Like many initiatives, the Accessible Icon Project started small. Hendren began by putting stickers with her updated icon over its traditional counterparts in the halls and rooms of Gordon College and nearby neighborhoods in Malden, Massachusetts. The movement has since gathered publicity and momentum up and down the East Coast and is pushing into more areas.
From its two-person beginnings, the Accessibility Icon Project now boasts a leadership team of twelve, including six people with disabilities of various sorts. Among them is Jeff Gentry of Triangle, an organization that is deeply committed to helping the world realize that we are all people with ability. Gentry and the other Project Directors have been instrumental in the expansion of the use of the updated symbol.
“Triangle supports the new logo by using it themselves and promoting it to their partners,” says Glenney. Thanks to Triangle, Clarks Americas, Talbots, and other retailers associated with Triangle have adopted the icon. A major national grocery chain should soon be on board with the new look.
As an organization that provides support, challenge and job opportunities to people with disabilities, Triangle is well positioned to help promote the icon. Gentry says,“When I saw the icon I fell in love with it immediately. I quickly proposed that we use it in our parking lot at Triangle and our youth had a fantastic time doing the painting.”
From there, the updated icon began to make its appearance all around the area. “Gary Christenson, the mayor of Malden, Massachusetts saw the icon and decided to take it all over the city,” explain Gentry. Triangle’s School-to-Career students have put the icon on the ground at Clarks Americas, Talbots, and Gordon College.
Gentry points out that despite the cost of repainting or replacing signs, a change to the updated icon benefits businesses and organizations that adopt it. “It’s a wise business decision to use the new symbol, to reach out to people with disabilities,” he asserts, noting that “18.78 percent of the population have a disability and we need to market to them. This symbol says that your business welcomes respects that people with disabilities.”
Gentry adds, “We hope that the icon, will provoke conversations about the way we see disabilities now, and that people with disabilities will use the icon as a symbol of their self-confidence and power. When I talk about the icon, I juxtapose the new icon with the historic but dated symbol of access.” The visual contrast between the symbols usually sells the message.
Another Accessible Icon Director, Brian Hildreth, has moved to New Bern, North Carolina and is exponentially expanding usage of the icon in his area. The town of New Bern and two other local municipalities have adopted the logo as well as Zaxby’s restaurant, the Texas Roadhouse, and three other local companies. Gentry says, “Hildreth was with us the first day we painted the icon and he has become the icon’s most effective ambassador.”
The Accessible Icon Project website offers instructions on how to shift to the new icon and offers stickers, templates for repainting parking spaces, and even T-shirts.
Beyond the icon, staff at the Accessibility Icon Project is moving to make broader changes. “We are slowly expanding our outreach through the website and articles,” Glenney says. “We want to get the word out about this different icon and its importance in changing the way people with disabilities think about themselves and the way all Americans view them. We want to increase access for people with disabilities far beyond parking spaces. We want to reach into the minds and hearts of people with this icon and increase access in jobs and more—in all aspects of life.”