The stick figure in a wheelchair is universally recognized as an indication of access for people with a disability, but many feel that it is due for a new, more vibrant look. Artist Sara Hendren, who lives in Cambridge, MA and has three children, one of whom has Down Syndrome, has taken the old image and given it a new spin: instead of a static image of a person who is part of a chair, her design shows mobility with the person, and thus the chair, in forward motion.
The International Symbol of Access, as it is formally known, was originally commissioned by Rehabilitation International in 1968. The purpose was to standardize the designation for facilities accessible to those with disabilities on a global level. It was adopted by the United Nations and is included in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Giving Hendren’s new, more dynamic design momentum has not been an easy task. In the beginning, she printed stickers and put them on top of the old design on local signs. People feared that the new design might violate the ADA rules, but state and federal officials said that variations are acceptable as long as new variations are easily identifiable as wheelchairs.
For Hendren, the change is more about perception than a graphic design. She and other advocates of the design hope that the new accessible icon will help the able-bodied open their mind–ultimately perceiving a person with a disability not as someone with limits, but as someone who is independent, active and moving forward.
“There’s a much bigger question to ask about who is abled and who is disabled and what we think about dependence and need. I’m just trying to start a discussion where we reevaluate our assumptions and our attitudes,” she said.
The design is catching on and can be currently found at Gordon College in Massachusetts, and the new look is replacing the old in locations in Boston and Malden, Massachusetts. The city of New York plans to begin using the new icon this summer.
“It’s such a forward-moving thing,” says Victor Calise, commissioner in the mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities in New York City.
On a global level, the design is capturing attention, as it’s currently used in a hospital in India.
What do you think? Can the design change for a long-standing image help foster a more positive perception of people with disabilities?