- International Symbol for Access has remained unchanged for four decades
- But a street art project to update the sign is gaining traction across the U.S.
- ‘Active’ design is supposed to promote more positive view of the disabled
- However, it has sharply divided opinions within the disabled community
Chris Pleasance For Dailymail.com
Associated Press Reporter
10:22 EST, 16 October 2015
08:58 EST, 17 October 2015
Critics have hit out at a redesigned sign for handicapped access – saying the new symbol does not represent all disabled people and is ‘political correctness gone mad’.
The current handicapped sign, a stick figure sitting upright in a wheelchair, has been recognized as the International Symbol of Accessibility by the United Nations since 1974.
However, a street art project started in 2009 which reworked the symbol to show the figure in a more active pose has since gained traction, and is now starting to replace the old sign across the U.S.
A proposed revamp of the handicapped access sign, which shows the stick figure in a more active pose, has started to be adopted across the U.S., but it has sharply divided opinion in the disabled community
New York state adopted it last year and Connecticut could soon become the second state to do so, while cities such as Phoenix and El Paso, Texas, are also on board.
The updated symbol, designed by Sara Hendren, then a grad student at Harvard, and Brian Glenney, a philosophy professor at Gordon College in Massachusetts, was supposed to promote a more positive view of people with disabilities.
However, the changes have sharply divided opinions among the disabled community.
BEHIND THE SIGN: HOW A STICK FIGURE BECAME WORLD FAMOUS
The handicapped access sign, featuring a stick figure sat upright on top of stylized wheelchair, is among the five most-recognized signs in the world today, according to RI Global.
Created as part of a design competition among Danish graphic design students in 1968, the winning artist was Susanne Koefoed.
Her stick figure design initially didn’t feature a head, which was added by Karl Montan in 1969, and the symbol has remained unchanged since.
A nearly decade-long campaign to have the symbol adopted internationally culminated with a United Nations ruling in 1974 which designed the design as the international symbol of disability.
However, Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren began defacing the signs, replacing them with their new figure, back in 2009.
The new symbol, showing the figure in an active pose to promote a more positive view of disability, has since gained traction and is now being adopted across the U.S.
Elizabeth Guffey, a disabled professor of art and design history at State University of New York at Purchase, said: ‘On the face of it, it seems like a really positive step to take.
‘When you start thinking about it more fully, it brings up more questions.’
Guffey, who currently writing a book on the symbol’s history, said the backlash has been most pronounced in the UK, where some view it as American political correctness gone mad.
Others, like Cathy Ludlum, disability rights activist from Connecticut, say the new design is insensitive towards people with serious disabilities.
Ludlum, who has a neuromuscular disorder and controls her motorized wheelchair by using three fingers, said: ‘The old symbol leaves everything up to the imagination.
‘The new symbol seems to say that independence has everything to do with the body, which it isn’t. Independence is who you are inside.’
Meanwhile the Federal Highway Administration has rejected requests to allow ‘alternative dynamic designs’ for traffic signs and pavement markings.
The International Organization for Standardization has also argued against the new design, saying the old one is universally recognized and should not be tampered with.
Meanwhile, Guffey pointed out that the sign itself is not always the biggest issue for the disabled.
She said some countries have a reputation for misusing the original symbol, placing it in locations that are not handicapped accessible.
She added: ‘As a disabled person, the actual image matters much less to me than the use of it. It’s not being used fully or right, right now.’
However, Hendren, now an assistant professor of design at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, said she felt people often underestimate the disabled, and wants the new symbol to represent power and independence.
She said people often underestimate her son, who has Down syndrome, although he does not actually use a wheelchair.
New York state has already adopted the new sign (left) which is replacing old ones on new constructions or when old signs (right) need to be replaced, while Connecticut will soon follow suit
She believes the redesigned icon could change attitudes and, ultimately, prompt more funding and better programs.
‘I want it to stand for much larger efforts, to improve material conditions,’ she said.
Lawmakers in Connecticut are expected to take up legislation next year that changes the logo and removes the word ‘handicapped,’ replacing it with ‘reserved.’
To keep costs low, new signs would only be required for new construction or when a sign is replaced.
Jon Slifka, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s disability community liaison who uses a wheelchair himself, said the state’s Democratic governor would sign the bill.
He said: ‘I think this is just another step in the evolution of disability awareness or disability action, where the disability community doesn’t want to be looked at in just one certain way.’
Health insurance giant Cigna, based in Bloomfield, has also been quick to embrace the concept, repainted parking spaces at its offices across the country with the updated symbol.
It also donated materials to other companies and organizations wanting to do the same.
Stephen Morris, executive director of the Arc of Farmington Valley in Canton, recently started an online petition supporting the change in Connecticut.
He says he has heard from advocacy organizations as far away as California.
‘While I think the message and the movement is a national movement, the effort has to begin state-by-state,’ Morris said. ‘We really are hoping that this is going to be like a domino effect.’