Friday, May 24, 2013

A Symbolic Makeover: Changing the Way We View Disability

The International Symbol of Accessibility, also known, perhaps crassly but accurately, as the wheelchair symbol, has been around for 45 years. In the past few months, I have stumbled upon multiple articles proposing an update to the familiar symbol, claiming that the symbol depicts a dated view of people with disabilities.

Artist Sara Hendren with her new symbol over the original design.
The original symbol, designed in 1968 by Danish student, Susan Koefoed, was intended to be an international way to identify facilities accessible to those with disabilities. Koefoed's design is similar to the one commonly seen today, except it lacked the circular head at the top of the chair. (It's important to note that her design was not intended to be a headless person in a wheelchair, but rather the chair itself with no person anywhere in the design. However, the change was suggested by International Committee on Technical Aids chair, Karl Montan, who thought that without a “head” at the top, the equal thickness of the lines could be mistaken for lettered monogram.) One of the primary criticisms of the design is that it does not accurately represent the disabled community.

In 2011, Cambridge artist and mother of three, Sara Hendren, decided to take matters into her own hands and design a more representative symbol. She began taking an interest in accessibility after giving birth to a son with Down Syndrome, and has since endeavored in a street art-based method of spreading awareness, creating transparent stickers of her design and putting them over the original symbols. While her design does not take into account the wide variety of disabilities that require denotation of accessible facilities, it does give more movement to the symbol, showing that the person and the wheelchair are two independent entities.

Hendren's success was furthered by help from friends who put her stickers up on signs around Boston and by Brian Glenney and Cyndi McMahon of Gordon College. McMahon, Gordon's director of marketing communications, contacted possible partners and got Fred Doulton, social affairs officer at the U.N. Secretariat for the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to jump on board and take with him Victor Calise, commissioner of the New York Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities. So even though getting the new symbol widely adopted is a challenge, Calise, who was paralyzed from the chest down when he was 22, hopes to have the old wheelchair symbols throughout New York replaced by the new, forward-thinking ones.

What do you guys think of the new design? How would you make your own? I'm thinking it would be awesome to see some pictures of your design ideas on the Kiwanis Capstone Facebook page. Show us what you've got!

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