The International Symbol of Access is one of the world's most familiar images. But it represents old perceptions of people with disabilities and badly needed a new look. At least that's what artist Sara Hendren, a mother of three including a son with Down syndrome, and Brian Glenney, Ph.D, an assistant professor of philosophy at Gordon College (and sometime graffiti artist), decided back in 2009. And that's how an updated version was born.
The two launched the Accessible Icon Project and began tacking up transparent stickers with the new design over old icons throughout Boston. Technically, it wasn't legal to do, but they were on a mission. Soon they were sending stickers to people around the country. People started using stencils to paint the icon on surfaces.
The revamped icon recently became part of the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection (major honor!) and is on display in the A Collection Of Ideas exhibit for a year.
This summer, New York City started replacing the old icons with the new one. The cities of Austin, Texas and Burlington, Massachusetts, have adopted it, along with a bunch of universities. The project's co-founders have heard from people around the world who are changing the old signage. The hope is the new icon will become the standard (it's compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act).
The grass-roots campaign has its critics. "We've certainly had people who say, 'It's just an image, and I'd rather you spend your time lobbying for other kinds of concrete change,'" Hendren has said. For her and Glenney, though, this is so much more than an image update. They hope it will, in their words, "provoke discussion on how we view disabilities and people with disabilities in our culture."
I asked Brian Glenney exactly how the new icon could help change mindsets. "The symbol is a call to action, much like the symbols of other movements—the pink triangle used by ActUp! or the raised fist employed by many political groups," he explains. "The more active and independent figure in the accessible icon says 'access now!'
"When Sara and I started this project, we saw it as a needed intervention, an editing not only of signage but of the preconceptions society has of people with disabilities. If the icon does anything to help society re-imagine the more engaged role that people with disabilities might play in society, then it will help pave the way for their inclusion in education, the job market and society in general."
A-men. Anything we can to to raise awareness and portray disability in a more positive (and active!) way is A Good Thing.