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September 6, 2011

The evolving symbol of accessibility


This post appeared in the blog 'Contrarian' - from our friend Parker Donham.  Parker is a straight-shooter if there ever was one, and has dealt openmindedly with many access-related issues.

The International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA), more widely but less correctly known as the handicapped sign, is evolving. The original symbol (far left), designed by Susanne Koefoed in 1968, was pretty much just a stylized wheelchair. The International Commission on Technology and Accessibility (ICTA), a committee of Rehabilitation International, humanized the it by adding a head (second from left). This is the icon we are most familiar with.
Critics complain that its static nature stigmatizes the wheelchairs as instruments of helplessness and passivity.  In 2005, VSA, an international organization on arts and disability, produced a more active icon implying self-propulsion (third from left). At least one store, in Cambridge, MA., strengthened this impression by adding cartoon-like motion arcs to the wheel. To date, I haven’t seen these last two in wide use,  but I sure like them better.
I was led through this history by Sara Hendren, an artist whose work focuses on disability issues, and who blogs at ablersite.org. For the last year, Hendren has kept tabs on human icons in everyday signage, and found herself “astonished to see how animated and evocative these signs can be.”
Hendren was initially tempted to recreate the ISA from scratch, but instead decided to “edit” it by adding color and motion. Using a mini-grant from the Awesome Foundation (a story in themselves), Hendren and a collaborator, philosopher Brian Glenney, created clear plastic decals that can be overlaid upon existing, old-style accessibility signs, jazzing them up in the process.
“I felt strongly that our decision to edit the image should make its own process visible, resulting in this clear-backed icon that fits over a number of standard, traditional signs,” Hendren wrote recently. “The juxtaposition of old and new draws attention to the comparison, and to the unconscious ways we consume images that drive our ideas about one another.”
If you would like some of these stickers, Hendren will send them free, as long as you promise to document their use. Email her at sarahendren @ gmail dot com.

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