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New ‘Handicapped’ Symbol Featured At Museum Of Modern Art

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A revamped version of the ubiquitous

A revamped version of the ubiquitous “handicapped” symbol is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as part of an exhibit focusing on works designed in recent decades. (MoMA)

An updated version of the familiar blue and white icon that’s long symbolized accessibility in parking lots and restrooms alike is now taking its place in the art world.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City is displaying a new, more active version of the “handicapped” symbol alongside other culturally-relevant designs from the last few decades like the “@” symbol commonly used in email, the pin found on Google Maps and the video games Pac-Man, Pong and Tetris.

Accessible Icon

The new “Accessible Icon” features a more active view of life with a disability. (Accessible Icon Project)

The revamped design, known as the “Accessible Icon,” depicts an in-motion visual of a person using a wheelchair. Created by Tim Ferguson-Saunder, Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren, the new icon started out as a grassroots effort in Boston with supporters placing stickers featuring the updated graphic over signs with the old wheelchair symbol. More recently, it has been adopted by the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and New York City, among other localities, businesses and schools.

Now the Museum of Modern Art is showcasing the icon as part of its exhibit titled “A Collection of Ideas” which is on display through February 2015.

Curator Paola Antonelli said the Accessible Icon represents a truly “ground up” effort to use a visual work to spark discussion about what disability means in society.

“It is not only effective, it is also simple and elegant,” Antonelli said of the new icon in an email to Disability Scoop. “Discussing both the process and the end product of the Accessible Icon project in the galleries will help demonstrate not only how design works but how it can be applied in the public realm, and by everyday people.”

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Comments (17 Responses)

  1. Sherri says:

    I think we missed an important opportunity here. Many people are disabled without needing a wheelchair all of the time or may not use a wheelchair at all, but a cane, crutches, or even able to walk short distances either independently or by taking the arm of another person. We should have a symbol that shows someone standing. It’s a given that the person in a chair is handicapped. It’s not always understood that the person walking also needs some assistance and deserves that accommodation too.

  2. Jennie Kermode says:

    I’m in two minds about this one. It’s great to show disabled people as participants in society, but we more we push the idea that we can do anything given the chance, the tougher things get for those of us for whom that is simply not true. It also implies that we should be valued because we’re really contributors. I’d like to be valued regardless.

  3. Vince T. says:

    It’s still a wheelchair. It still emphasises disability, or ‘handicap’ as you apparently call it. Disappointed that some notion of opportunity or accessibility hasn’t crept into designers’ mind-sets.

  4. Sally says:

    I hear the points in the comments made, but this is one of those situations that you can’t please everyone on all levels. My best analogy is that I don’t typically wear dresses, but don’t mind that bathroom doors are most often marked by a dress-wearing figure!

  5. Anthony says:

    l like the symbol for the awareness it offers the public. The current accessible symbol looks as if the person requiring a wheelchair is docile or stagnant rather than an active person who happens to be a wheelchair (WC) user. If this new accessible symbol were marking parking spaces, accessible routes, and even restrooms, then it could sway thinking people to realize disability is a state and not the person.

  6. soricobob says:

    Not for nothing, but how much is it going to cost, and what benefit will it have?

  7. susan says:

    I, and several family members, have disabilities-none in wheelchairs. I have no problems using the wheelchair as the symbol, and respectfully submit that there really is no need to change the symbol. This symbol has finally become recognized internationally. As a taxpayer, I want to know how the implementation of this change will take place, and at what cost. I would rather see the taxpayers’ dollars be used for services, not signs.

  8. Steven Orfield says:

    With this symbol there is a clear issue of visual salience (meaning). As a perceptual lab, we’ve long looked at these issues. And the question of clarity of image and clarity of meaning are extremely important here.

    If you squint and look at the image (many older and disabled viewers have far less image brightness and less visual acuity than normal), is the dynamic that the designers intended helping to clarify the symbol? The answer is clearly not. It’s becoming more complex. First we must communicate; second we must engage.

    Graphics is never more important than message, much as design is never more important that usability.

  9. Jeff Gentry says:

    I am a member of the Accessible Icon team and I just wanted to drop in and thank everyone for their conversation about the Icon. The purpose of the project has never been to completely replace the International Symbol of Access (ISA), but to create conversation about accessibility, inclusion, and the capability of people with disabilities to navigate their world.

    As for some of the common critiques of the project…we realize that neither this symbol, nor any other, can adequately represent all people with disabilities. By adapting the imagery of the wheelchair the artists behind the project were trying to adapt something known (the wheelchair symbol) so that it could provoke conversation about something that is not always known (i.e., people with disabilities, whether they use a chair or not, or whether they have arms or not, can still make choices for themselves and move forward towards their goals; people with disabilities play a dynamic, not static role in our communities).

    As per the cost question, I suppose it could be a significant issue if we were advocating for cities, businesses and nonprofits to replace all of their ISA images at once. However, we are not advocating for that at all. We are encouraged when people use the Icon to replace signage that is worn and needs to be replaced, when they are purchasing signage for new buildings, etc. In the latter instances, paint or signage has to be purchased whether or not the Icon is used. It doesn’t cost anything more to have a sign company produce a stencil or signage that features the Icon instead of the ISA or vice versa.

    Thank you for continuing the conversation about the Icon. I find the generous tone and careful consideration of the Icon Project encouraging!

  10. Lee says:

    This is kind of cool, though I wish they wouldn’t refer to it is “handicapped”. I’m a person with special needs and/or physical challenges. “Parking for Persons with Physical Challenges” or “Parking for Persons with Special Needs”, sounds a lot better. Also, not every person who has a physical disability needs to utilize a wheelchair. The graphic or “icon” should be universal. .

  11. Joseph Todor says:

    > depicts an in-motion visual of a person using a wheelchair.
    I don’t see many WC users in that new “leaning forward” position.
    They are usually in the upright position, either propelling the wheels by hand, being pushed by a caretaker, or, more often, using the motorized controls.

  12. CAT says:

    I’m physically and mentally disabled (have used a cane for years and now require a walker). I understand both sides people are “arguing” as to this new icon, but I do see it as a good thing. I despise the use of the term “handicapped” and strongly support “people first language”; however I really see this as a good thing, a very necessary change. It’s easy for people with and without disabilities to understand as it’s very similar to what we’ve become used to seeing. It would be cool to see a person holding a cane in the air or something more detailed, but… well at least it’s getting somewhere.

  13. Mitchell says:

    I have no problems with using a wheelchair as a universal symbol for accessibility accomodations. I’ve also met many people with disabilities who are much less disabled than a lot of the folks I see walking the streets. Having a so-called disability does not have to mean one is disabled. Never “Diss” your abilities.

    The money piece doesn’t surprise me either. Reasonable accomodation costs money. Signes with Braille cost money too. Cut outs in sidewalks cost money. Chirping traffic signals, elevatiors saying what floor – all cost money. What do these cost focused people propose? Save a buck and let people with challenges fend for themselves? It is typical these days that many will say in favor of saving a buck, let the elderly, disabled and poor just die off.

    I have a proposal to save money – instead of different signs for bathrooms, lets just make one sign saying “bathroom” and let whomever wants to use it, go in.

  14. S Smith says:

    So it seems we agree this is AN Improvement. I absolutely support this, can see the value and it is About Time! Good for the wheelchair community. Way to go Boston!
    I agree with everyone. And, from these comments it continues to verify what I have been attempting to express among the disabled organizations in the state. There are Differences. To me, having to be identified by a symbol visually focused on chair dependence & leg function just as this one still is, discriminates against the rest of us. It does not represent ME at All. Sure, put it in wheelchair/van accessible areas but give the rest of us a symbol. How hard is it to have a symbol of a person (unisex) Standing in blue? (Blue with flames if you like.) STANDING not Chair Dependent is accurate of the vast majority of disabilities and to me, That’s Awareness as well as fairness.
    So, good for Boston. Now, why can’t Kansas unite and take a next step?

  15. CoolMobility says:

    I’ve been a quad who uses a wheelchair (hate the term “IN a wheelchair”) for 38 years and like the newer symbol a lot more than the old conservative static version. The old version which looks like a statue – never moving.

    I do agree that the line thickness is a bit wide for distance or poor sight discrimination but I like the idea of invoking motion in the icon. I’m a person first who happens to use a wheelchair, but I accept that the wheelchair is the ICON that defines disabled access/parking/toilets. It is a recognisable symbol that means disabled – hence an Icon.

    It is a ‘symbol’ for disability and, like it or not, that icon is what is seen as defining disability, as skirts are for women’s toilets, legs for men, horse WITH rider for horses crossing, swept wing airliner for airport – it is only a symbol to clarify which toilets are for who. To those who walk and are offended, your disability being less obvious means it is NOT suitable as a representative icon. Sorry, but a figure with one leg and a cane will not represent disabled and never will. An ICON needs to be readily recognised and clear in its message and representation.

  16. Robin Strup says:

    As a Driving Rehab Specialist, I understand all sides of the Reserved/Handicap parking space designation. What I think people don’t realize is that persons who rely solely on their wc for mobility have no other options for entering or exiting their vehicle, especially as a driver or even as a passenger when a ramp is needed. There needs to be 3-4 ft on the ramp side to even use it. It’s a pet peeve of mine when businesses have poorly marked or use poor signage for wc accessible space. I think it would be nice for new & updated signs, but it may be more important for community education. Otherwise wc user is stranded & can’t get in car/van if not enough space

  17. Marg says:

    From ‘handicapped’ to ‘accessible’ is a good start.
    Lets take it to the next step. We can keep it short and provoke thoughtfulness at the same time.

    How about from ‘accessible’ to ‘Barrier Free’.
    Good discussion all. This is a very good beginning.

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