In coming months, as parts of New York City continue to rebuild after the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, observant citizens may notice a small change in their neighborhoods. In parking lots and on street signs, instead of the old International Symbol of Access—the ubiquitous white-on-blue icon of a figure seated in a wheelchair—they’ll find something new. The new thing will look much like the old thing, but there will be one key difference. The figure on the sign will be wheeling himself.
Though New York City will undoubtedly be its biggest stage to date, the new accessibility symbol wasn’t designed for or by the city. Instead, it exists as part of a grassroots effort called the Accessible Icon Project, an initiative that’s steadily been gaining momentum over the past year. The symbol has already been adopted by a handful of schools, businesses, and smaller municipalities. It can be found stickered and stenciled in countries around the world, where international activists have put it to use in their own hometowns. Talks are currently under way to roll it out in other major metropolitan areas here in the United States.
In its earliest form, though, the revised symbol wasn’t anywhere close to street-sign ready. In fact, back in 2009, when its creators were first toying around with the idea, they weren’t trying to come up with something to replace street signs at all. The original plan was to deface them.
Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren, the duo behind the project, first started thinking about the International Symbol of Access, or ISA, in 2009. It’s one of those things that’s seldom thought about, even though it’s seen all the time.
Hendren, then part of the Art and the Public Domain program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, had just started a blog called Abler as a place to track developments in prosthetics and topics related to the human body. Glenney, a philosophy professor at Gordon College in Massachusetts, had worked with Hendren in the past and followed the site in hopes of finding a new opportunity to collaborate.
Though his office is in the philosophy department, Glenney had always been interested in disability studies and issues of perception, as well as technologies that might help people with visual deficits see in new ways. But in talking with Hendren, he started considering how new, enabling technologies don’t automatically lead to social acceptance. That got him wondering about the root of the problem.
"So we took a step back and said, 'Maybe we need to start thinking about where our preconceived opinions of people with disabilities come from, and target that,'" Glenney recalls. Hendren had just written a post on Abler about a trend she’d been noticing, where businesses were eschewing the standard ISA for their own custom accessibility icon. The next step was obvious enough: Maybe it was the symbol that was in need of some attention.
At that point, however, the campaign to replace the old symbol was still a long ways off. When they were getting started, the collaborators were focused on intervention.
Initially, Glenney and Hendren’s aim was to generate conversation. Though the ISA symbol had generally been a huge boon to disabled individuals over the years, it’s easy to see how the symbol itself was less than ideal. Compared to the bathroom sign stick figures we’re used to, the one on the ISA looks frail and immobile—more an outgrowth of the chair it’s sitting in than its own distinct entity. So as they put things in motion in the early months of 2010, Glenney and Hendren’s main concern was drawing attention to some of these visual attributes that they found problematic.
Their early ideas all involved decidedly less-than-official measures. Glenney had done his fair share of graffiti in his youth, and he didn’t have any qualms about putting his own mark on the built environment, especially for a project as noble as this. "I think the initial thought was, 'how do we put stuff on signs without getting arrested?'" he says.
They first tried out a sticker that covered up the old symbol completely, but Hendren quickly discovered that the approach didn’t have the desired effect. "What I found was that whenever I showed people our new icon, they were like, 'That looks great! What does the old one look like?'" she says. "In other words, it was so ubiquitous it had become invisible.'"
So they changed tack and instead decided on a transparent sticker—one that would show their revised, more active figure against the backdrop of the old, static symbol. They rendered the new figure in bright orange and tried a few test runs, but those weren’t entirely successful either. "We cut out a figure, and we’d just slap it over the signs," recalls Glenney. "But the people who looked at it just didn’t understand what was happening. A lot of them were like, 'Is he leaping out of the chair?'" That’s some sort of statement, to be sure, but not the one they were going for.
The perplexed response made way for the next major iteration—a transparent sticker that showed both the new, more humanized figure and a chair along with him—and Glenney and Hendren had 1,000 printed on hyperstatic static window decals. Soon they could be found all over the city of Boston. How exactly did so many get disseminated so quickly? "It helps to know a lot of graffiti artists," Glenney says. "Let’s just put it that way."
Up until that point, the project had been centered around creating a discussion. Glenney and Hendren weren’t interested in proposing a solution so much as identifying a problem. "For me, it was a street art kind of campaign, an interventionist campaign," Hendren says. "It was like drawing a circle around the change in the design that we were trying to do, and pointing to that change."
One of the people who noticed the stickers was Billy Baker, a staffer at the Boston Globe, who wrote a piece on the project for the paper in February, 2011. The article brought their efforts even wider attention, but Hendren and Glenney quickly found that readers weren’t just interested in talking about the shortcomings of the ISA. They wanted a new symbol to replace it.
"The response that came in [the article’s] wake made us realize that what people were looking for was, in fact, a new icon." Hendren says. "Most people wrote to us and said, 'I love what you’re doing, but I want to change the icons at my school, full-stop.'"
That wave of inquiry marked a significant transformation in the undertaking. It was a shift, Glenney says, "from a public art campaign to what might be called an advocacy project." But creating something that could actually stand in for the old symbol would require some actual graphic design chops.
Thankfully, Tim Ferguson-Sauder, a friend of Hendren’s who happened to be the creative director at Gordon College where Glenney worked, had seen the sticker popping up around campus and was eager to get involved.
In developing the new symbol, the group kept on the path they’d established early on. Generally speaking, the goal was to show a more humanized depiction of the disabled. That meant reorienting the visual focus of the symbol from the chair to the person, and replacing the rigid, static representation with something more dynamic and active.
But designing toward actual adoption brought all sorts of new limitations and parameters. The first thing that had to go was the orange. The American Disabilities Association, which sets the visual guidelines for accessibility symbols, requires a 70% contrast between the figure and the background, and ultimately the designers defaulted to the standard blue.
They also tried to bring the icon in line with ISO DOT 50 standards, a universally accepted icon set that determines the look of the figures you commonly see on bathroom signage. In an effort to give a sense of motion, the earlier symbol had shown both of the wheelchair’s wheels; now, they hammered it down into a completely flat representation.
With the general idea settled upon, Tim Ferguson-Sauder tirelessly worked out the details, a process which occasionally involved his design students at Gordon. "Once you restrict yourself to the constraints of a simple icon every little detail becomes very important," he says. "Aligning those details into an effective and cohesive whole took a lot of revisions and a lot more time than I expected." Introducing motion and activity into the icon while preserving the visual relationships within the existing ISO DOT 50 icon set—most of which "don’t feel all that active," as the designer points out—was particularly challenging.
Shooting for real world adoption also brought other real world concerns to the fore. The symbol needed to be fit for signs and streets, which meant it had to lend itself to sticker and stencil form. Accommodating the latter took some thought. Mainly the issue came with the wheelchair’s wheel. For the stencil to work properly, the negative space in the middle of the wheel had to be connected to the space outside of it.
"We geeked around with a big old positive space, and that just looked terrible," Glenney recalls. "So we put in those tabs. In our minds, they suggest motion of the wheel. So it has this great double effect. It gives us the tabs to make stencils, and it shows a little bit of motion. The previous iteration with the double wheel, and we had to have one image for the sticker and one image for the stencil. This one just simplified everything."
After months of revision and iteration, the new accessible icon finally came together. They’d created something that embodied the qualities of activity and agency they initially set out to capture, but by adhering strictly to the ISO-50 standards, the result felt instantly familiar.
"It popped," Glenney says. "It has this kind of quality, like, 'Oh, I recognize that.' I think that’s why this iteration is really successful. It matches the expectations and anticipations of what a symbol should look like."
With the symbol finalized, the task turned to getting it out there in the world. With the blessing of the administration, Glenney and Ferguson-Sauder updated signs and parking lots across the Gordon College campus. Along the way, the group picked up a vital collaborator in Triangle, Inc., a nonprofit that focuses on training and career placement for disabled individuals.
Through Triangle, Inc., the group was introduced to corporate partners like Clark’s and Talbots, both of whom were eager to update their own facilities. The mayor of Malden, Massachusettes, the city where Triangle is based, gave a full-throated endorsement of the project, encouraging the group to update signs and lots all across the city.
Throughout the process, something was dawning on the designers. It wasn’t just disabled self-advocates who were interested in the new symbol. Institutions were eager to adopt it themselves. "We realized, 'oh, there are people who want to use this new symbol as a signal to their communities about their progressive, inclusionary wishes and aims,'" Hendren says.
The symbol seemingly generated its own momentum. "It outpaced our expectations for sure," Hendren explains. "We heard from a doctor at a big rehab hospital at Delhi and changed the official signage there. People in Italy, people in Sweden, people in Canada. I could go on and on."
Meanwhile, Cyndi McMahon, the director of marketing communications at Gordon College, was trying to spread the word herself. A cold call to the United Nations of all places eventually put the project on the radar of Victor Calise, who had recently been named Commissioner for the Mayor’s Office of People With Disabilities in New York City.
Calise quickly set about introducing the new symbol to the Big Apple. It won’t happen all at once—rather, the plan is to phase it in gradually, as opportunity arises. The neighborhoods being rebuilt after Sandy Hook are one example. A variation of the symbol, showing the figure hailing a cab, will be featured prominently on the hoods of Nissan’s accessible taxi vans, being introduced this fall.
For those involved, the influx of institutions eager to adopt the new symbol has been as thrilling as it was unexpected. But widespread adoption of the new symbol isn’t necessarily the happy ending to the story. After all, for however it might nudge our preconceived notions of the disabled in a positive direction, isn’t it possible that the new symbol will end up just as invisible as the old one?
Thus, for Hendren, the greater aim of the project remains that of generating discussion. "We’re interested in keeping the conversation aspect really central. We’re not really interested in a pretty new design, like, 'oh, good, wipe our hands clean of this issue and move right along because a good design wins the day.' We want something that can keep that contestation really in the air, by the power of a symbol.'"
Part of that discussion simply involves dragging the convoluted guidelines of accessibility signage into daylight. The ADA has been frustratingly mum on the new symbol, even though the designers have gone to lengths to ensure it’s compliant with the body’s stated visual standards. Over the last few years, as the project has grown, the creators have spent a good deal of time trying to sort out what types of changes certain types of institutions are legally permitted to make, vis a vis accessibility signage. The only thing they’re sure of after all that work? No one’s really sure what’s permitted to begin with.
"These are questions that need to be talked about," Hendren says, "and we’re glad that they are being talked about. The use of symbols varying state to state, or a government agency vs. private business. Those are being hammered out by the people who want to do it."
Of course, getting lost in that bureaucratic swamp means the risk of losing sight of the real focus of the discussion: the disabled community itself, and how society sees it. "A project like this could easily be pretty anodyne," Hendren admits. "It could be a broad affirmation of a set of ideas that feel very politically correct. Our wish has been to get this in the hands of people who are advocating for themselves."
And while the response from self-advocates and other members of the disabled community has generally been one of gratitude and enthusiasm, there are some who have pointed out that the symbol might not be as progressive as it might seem. Glenney recalled how an individual with a visual impairment pointed out that the new symbol didn’t do any better job representing him than the old one had. Given the project’s tacit aim of inclusion, this person’s feeling of exclusion resonated with Glenney.
Still, he says, the process is one of evolution. And while many have been elated to see the new symbol’s spread here in the U.S., Hendren points out that it might be doing the most good in other corners of the world, where the views on disabilities are considerably less evolved.
"The fact that we’re hearing from people in different parts of the world where disabilities are in a really different place—where there might not be basic accommodations—that signals to us that this is still worth doing."