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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rethinking Ability

Posted by on Thu, Feb 20, 2014 at 3:38 PM

  • Accessible Icon Project. Posted with permission.

When I read this story about a group of people working to change the International Symbol of Access (ISO), I was really intrigued, and it made me think about how this guerilla art project addressed the way we often think about physical ability and disability. I reached out to the Accessibile Icon Project to find out more and discovered that one of the people who created the icon is Seattle native Brian Glenney, former Westlake skater and part of the Big Time Mob graffiti crew, so I called him to find out more.

The reimagined ISO features a person in a wheelchair with some forward movement—the body is angled forward, the lines of the wheels indicate movement, and the arm is crooked back in such a way that it implies pushing. The image is transparent, so when it's placed over the current ISO you an see both the old and new look. Glenney started this project with artist (and so much more) Sara Hendren as a way to

create a disturbance and not accepting the old, static, medicalized stick figure to symbolize access. The idea is to trigger advocacy, or at least inspect our preconceptions of people with disabilities.

I think it's really cool.

But the project has some detractors. According to Glenney, some people feel that having a wheel in the ISO limits the symbolization in a way that excludes other types of disabilities. He's open to change, though, and thinks that evolving symbology will do more to create a conversation about advocacy. (The Accessible Icon Project image went through several changes, too.)

I reached out to a few of my friends who have disabilities to get their take on this new symbol, but none have gotten back to me yet (they're busy taking over the world, sorry). What do you guys think about this? Will you be ordering stickers and tagging signs around town? Do you think this is offensive or progressive?


Comments (21) RSS

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TheMisanthrope 1
As a new symbol, it's interesting. But, wouldn't the people in wheelchairs who don't have that strength feel shitty that they aren't living up to the expectations of the new speedy icon? I can't make the claim to either though.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on February 20, 2014 at 4:10 PM · Report this
99% Invisible, a great, short podcast on design, just posted an episode about this:…

I think it's a good redesign, and it seems like it easily could replace the current ISO-recognized icon. But I also wonder about whether it's limiting. On the other hand, there is power to having a universally-recognized icon. Someone much more clever and talented than I would have to figure out if there is a way to represent all sorts of disabilities without diminishing the power of this simple icon.
Posted by meganc on February 20, 2014 at 4:12 PM · Report this
fletc3her 3
I don't see the symbol as being an improvement over the ADA 1969 symbol.

I would say ADA 1969 is fine. The addition of a head is nice over the earlier symbol. The 1994 and 2000 symbols are okay, but not really an improvement. The Street Art Campaign symbols are confusing.

The finished product still generally reads as a wheelchair though the body position is not nearly as clear. I find it easy to read it as somebody stepping out of something or tiptoeing. The split wheel could also read as a NO symbol, a circle with a slash across it.
Posted by fletc3her on February 20, 2014 at 4:23 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 4
It kind of looks like someone doing a weird dance behind a tire.
Posted by keshmeshi on February 20, 2014 at 4:48 PM · Report this
MacCrocodile 5
@4 - Yes! I saw either emphatic pooping or someone trying to step over a tire without touching it.
Posted by MacCrocodile on February 20, 2014 at 5:08 PM · Report this
Jesus fuck. Icons are supposed to be simple indicators - not the 50+ gender list on Facebook! EVERY goddamned handicap cannot be listed everywhere, lest every parking lot sign and bathroom stall end up marked up like the gaggle of family member stickers in the back of the Duggar family station wagon.

Simple awareness of an issue many/most of us do not keep at the forefront of our thoughts, in locations where it is needed is all these need to do. Regardless of how special you are, you're not special - just like the rest of us. The minute variation of one affliction over another does not engender the right to extreme attention.
Posted by diggum on February 20, 2014 at 5:18 PM · Report this
It looks cooler, but I'm not sure that's the point.
Posted by Joel_are on February 20, 2014 at 5:52 PM · Report this
seandr 8
I'd personally like to see the International Symbol for the Men's Room loosen up a bit. Maybe put a drink in his hand, or show him doing a little jig.
Posted by seandr on February 20, 2014 at 6:40 PM · Report this
Banna 9
That says more "stargate ahead, watch for emerging people"
Posted by Banna on February 20, 2014 at 7:25 PM · Report this
raindrop 10
This is a discussion in search of a controversy.
Posted by raindrop on February 20, 2014 at 7:30 PM · Report this
nedludd2 11
As a wheelchair user who has always hated the helpless "wheelchair Willie" icon, I love this redesign. Hands off motherfucker, I can push myself.
Posted by nedludd2 on February 20, 2014 at 7:37 PM · Report this
Backyard Bombardier 13
@10 No it isn't. Take a look at @11. Some of the real human beings this symbol is meant to represent do not like the way the current version represents them. The fact that folks like you and @6 think the current version is good enough is not relevant.
Posted by Backyard Bombardier on February 20, 2014 at 9:03 PM · Report this
originalcinner 14
I've heard some eejits complaining about people using handicapped parking spaces who "obviously" aren't handicapped because they're not in wheelchairs. There really are people in this world who think you need to be in a wheelchair to use those spaces, because that's what the picture shows. I know you can't fix stupid, but maybe the wheelchair isn't the best symbol, just to shut up the eejits.
Posted by originalcinner on February 20, 2014 at 9:46 PM · Report this
What's the symbol for "seizures and social anxiety that can only be controlled or sensed by my trained miniature horse" ?
Posted by ChefJoe on February 20, 2014 at 10:09 PM · Report this
I can understand why your friends haven't gotten back to you; maybe they don't want their reactions in Slog.
Posted by sarah70 on February 20, 2014 at 11:09 PM · Report this
@13. The symbol doesn't "represent" "human beings" any more than the symbol for "slippery when wet" "represents" particular cars. The symbol represents "disability" as a concept to allow people to instantly understand "oh, I shouldn't park/shit here." Universal and uniform understanding of what the sign means is 10000% more important than making sure no one's fee-fees are hurt. Do we ask the canaries if it hurts their feelings to depict one of them dead on the "poison gas" sign? Do we ask all road workers if they feel adequately represented by the sillhouetes with the shovels on the "men at work" sign? I mean, a lot of road workers don't even use shovels!
Posted by Marooner on February 20, 2014 at 11:32 PM · Report this
Dr_Awesome 18
@17 Oh, dear child.

Those 'men at work' signs that you mentioned used to say just that. But as more women entered the workforce the language was modified. In fact, the text and the gender pronoun was removed and replaced with the silhouette of a worker with a shovel.

So yes, symbols and signs carry a lot of context in their words and images, and we revise them as our understanding changes.
Posted by Dr_Awesome on February 21, 2014 at 6:46 AM · Report this
NotSean 19
@17 I greatly agree - this strikes me as a vanity project (ooooh, it's all the wrong shade of blue) - but then, if @11 and several million others want 'willie' to be gone, well, ok. Just so long as everyone is aware, there are better things we could do with our resources, such as broader implementation of the ADA.
Posted by NotSean on February 21, 2014 at 7:03 AM · Report this
Backyard Bombardier 20
@16: Given the dickish tone of 90% of these comments, I can't say I blame them.

There is actually an interesting conversation to be had - among those who give a shit about this - around the point raised in the post and by @2 regarding the usefulness of the current (and revised) symbol as an indicator for all disability groups, not just wheelchair users. @14 is correct: some people really do think the parking spots marked by this symbol are only for people using wheelchairs.

Posted by Backyard Bombardier on February 21, 2014 at 7:09 AM · Report this
Rotten666 21
This is a thing people care about? Whatever floats your boat, I guess.
Posted by Rotten666 on February 21, 2014 at 8:07 AM · Report this
seattlejenny 22
It appears the only actual wheel chair user on here says essentially "fuck yeah."
It is clearly similar enough to be unmistakably the same meaning. You really can't change an international symbol too aggressively.
Design by a graffiti artist?
Gives people with a difficult life a little more empowerment?
Posted by seattlejenny on February 21, 2014 at 9:56 AM · Report this

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