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The handicap symbol gets an update — at least in New York state

New York state’s new symbol of access. (Accessible Icon Project)

More than 45 years after it was first created, the handicap symbol is getting a significant redesign, at least in New York.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on Friday signed into law the measure, making New York the first state in the nation to replace the universal symbol with the modified version above, according to the sponsors of the bill.

“New York is again leading the way by being the first state in the Nation to update our outdated ‘handicap’ signs with a more active, engaging symbol. Working together we will continue to be a shining example for disability rights throughout the country,” Sen. David Carlucci (D) said in a statement. He and Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D) co-sponsored the bill, which has no fiscal impact as it only requires new signs to carry the updated icon and which also drops the word “handicapped” from signs and communications in favor of the word “accessible.”

The old symbol was the result of a competition won in 1968 by Danish student Susanne Koefoed. The original featured a headless, inactive body in a wheelchair with arms extended outward. It was soon modified slightly — basically, a head was added — and incorporated into the International Organization for Standardization’s collection of symbols for equipment.

The design has received updates and proposed redesigns throughout the years, some of them pushing the body forward and connecting the arms to the wheelchair to make the person depicted appear more active. One such redesign, at the Museum of Modern Art, caught artist Sara Hendren’s eye several years ago. She blogged about it then and began thinking up alternatives to the classic symbol, eventually joining forces with Brian Glenney. The two made stickers as part of a guerrilla art project and began placing them on signs around Boston.

“We knew that a mildly illegal act would actually be the angle by which we could raise the conversation that we wanted to raise, which was not really about the symbol’s graphic qualities, as such,” says Hendren, now a professor of design at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. “It was about how do we represent people in public ways and and what does this sign, this symbol which is after all historically really profound in what it guarantees as political access, what does that mean to us now.”

The new International Symbol of Access. (Accessible Icon Project)

They eventually joined up with Tim Ferguson-Sauder to create the latest iteration of the design and released it into the public domain. They later formed the Accessible Icon Project to promote its use and the icon was eventually adopted by companies, nonprofit groups and cities, including Cambridge, Mass., El Paso, Tex., and, last year, New York among others. But the redesign has met with some mild criticism, too.

“It makes you think of Paralympic athletes, of wheelchair races and speedy movements,” Barry Gray, chair of the ISO’s committee on graphical symbols, said last November in an official organization article on the redesign. “But the symbol has to work in static situations. Part of its job is to mark wheelchair spaces in public transportation or indicate refuge in emergency situations, as well as lifts and toilets.”

His concern, that the redesign portrays only one kind of disability and one kind of individual in a wheelchair, is something Hendren and her collaborators have discussed at length, she notes in a blog post. “The arm pushing a chair is symbolic — as all icons are symbols, not literal representations,” she wrote. “… Our symbol speaks to the general primacy of personhood, and to the notion that the person first decides how and why s/he will navigate the world, in the broadest literal and metaphorical terms.”

That also happens to be how she views the movement to replace the icon: it’s a metaphor for taking action and rethinking disability.

“The very beginning of it is about altering an image, but the real work of the project is a kind of sustained conversation about  disability rights,” Hendren says. That conversation is one she maintains at her personal Web site and in interviews about the design as well as through the Accessible Icon Project. The group is retooling its web site to serve as a forum for that discussion.

Niraj Chokshi is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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