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New Look, New Meaning- Have You Seen the New Disability Icon?

Recently, I was walking from Market One toward the Quad and decided to cut through the breezeway when I saw it. I had never really noticed the handicap accessible sign before, but this one caught my eye. The sign behind Wilson featured a person leaning forward in their wheelchair, showing movement, which contrasted the old, passive wheelchair and person in the old symbol. When I investigated further, I found out that the symbol was actually part of a larger project called The Accessible Icon Project with the aims to change how we talk sand view the disability community.

The old vs. new wheelchair accessibility icon.

The old vs. new wheelchair accessibility icon.

The Accessible Icon Project knows that visible representation matters and the disability icon of an inactive, static person is not fully representative of the community. So they decided to create a new symbol that would challenge our cultural views of disability.  They break down the symbol into five parts of how they increased activity with the icon:

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 6.58.36 PM


1)    Head is forward to indicate the forward motion of the person through space. Here the person is the “driver” or decision maker about her mobility.

2)    Arm is pointing backward to suggest the dynamic mobility of a chair user, regardless of whether or not she uses her arms. Depicting the body in motion represents the symbolically active status of navigating the world.

3)    By including white angled knockouts the symbol presents the wheel as being in motion. These knockouts also work for creating stencils used in spray paint application of the icon. Having just one version of the logo keeps things more consistent and allows viewers to more clearly understand intended message.

4)    The human depiction in this icon is consistent with other body representations found in the ISO 7001 – DOT Pictograms. Using a different portrayal of the human body would clash with these established and widely used icons and could lead to confusion.

5)    The leg has been moved forward to allow for more space between it and the wheel, which allows for better readability and cleaner application of icon as a stencil.

Artist Sara Hendron and collaborator Brian Glenney explains the symbol started as “guerilla art” where they would stick transparent stickers of the new symbScreen Shot 2014-03-30 at 7.11.11 PMol over old ones. The original goal for the project was to just being a dialogue about perceptions of disability, and it has done that and more. The revamped symbol is ADA compliant and is spreading across the country with it being adapted by businesses, universities, and full cities. It has become a metaphor for self- determination and self- reliance the disability community often has removed from them. Disability has become politically invisible, and feminism often excludes those who have a disability from the conversation. The icon is important for us to consider and really think about the way we talk/ think/ or perceive disability.

I know on this campus we have few conversations on disability and little visibility of it. Many people claim they don’t talk about it because they don’t encounter it- so why should it matter? It matters because while the JMU bubble may face issues of diversity for some group’s inclusion does not mean those same groups don’t exist in the real world. The Accessible Icon Project echoes this idea and asks for people to change, advocate, and share the new icon in order to challenge stereotypes of the disability community.


The Accessible Icon works in three ways: 

  1.  CHANGE: You can use our products or resources to change your signs.

  2.  ADVOCATE: We have resources for involving your community in disability advocacy.

  3.  SHARE: We’d love to hear from you. The icon is a starting place—a seed for conversations about accessibility, inclusion, and disability rights.

Events that were part of JMU’s Disability Awareness Week this past week and increased visibility of disability in the media are necessary in order for us to challenge our perceptions of the world and see there is more to disability than meets the eye.


16 Responses to “New Look, New Meaning- Have You Seen the New Disability Icon?”

  1. truequeerlatte

    This is a really wonderful post. I was unfamiliar with the new the icon and the purpose behind the change. People with disabilities are often invisible on our campus, both because disability can often be invisible and because our campus is in many ways inaccessible, especially for those with physical disabilities. I cannot overstate however, the extent to which temporarily able-bodied people go about making people with disabilities invisible, by refusing to have conversations about accessibility and oppression or by making our spaces inaccessible. Thanks for calling attention to this. Hopefully we see some change, especially in the feminist community!

    • ladylikesailormouth

      So true- the physical layout of our campus is not disability friendly. I remember my freshman year I tore a muscle in my knee (very much not a disability I am aware but for the sake of noticing this issue) and I couldn’t get into one of the buildings I had class in without hiking my cast up the stairs. What if you were in a wheelchair?! That would be so difficult. Or even the village dorms with no elevators? We definitely need to open dialogue about accessibility and inclusion with those in the disability community!

  2. mymanifesta

    I agree with truequeerlatte – this is a great post. I will definitely be more on the lookout for this new disability icon. It will be interesting to see it spread over time and I know I will appreciate it that much more knowing what it stands for and what it’s fighting for.

  3. mscherhorowitz

    I think it’s so cool that you noticed the new symbol on campus and decided to investigate it further. I’ll admit that I don’t pay much attention at all to which areas have handicap symbols because it doesn’t apply to me and I don’t need the accessibility services. I think because of this I’ve never put much thought into my perception of the symbol and how it influences the way I see disabled people. I certainly don’t think of them as being inactive people, because the Paralympics and various other athletic opportunities for the disabled community usually come to mind when I think about their activity level. However, my first thought upon seeing the new symbol was “Why does it look like he’s falling out of the chair?” instead of how the wheelchair user is meant to look like he’s being active. I’m skeptical to believe this symbol will really change anyone’s views towards the disabled, but at the very least it’s more practical and user friendly than the previous one.

    • ladylikesailormouth

      Mscherhorowitz- Why exactly do you think it still won’t change the viewpoints of others? I do agree those who are able bodied probably will not take notice to the symbol change as much, but I feel like the new image is so striking that you would have to notice the difference.

  4. pumphandlenews

    Thank you for sharing this! I plan on sharing the info with my public health colleagues at Mizzou. Maybe we can get the signs changed here!

    • ladylikesailormouth

      That is awesome! I planned on sharing it with my health communication class as well. I think this is an awesome step toward transforming the image of public health campaigns geared toward disability and accessibility.

  5. Matthew Stone

    I see it as being in motion, but will it stop people from parking in the spot? Let us not move too far away from the people who can not move their own chair and need the help of others to accomplish there daily routines. Will this educate people on what space is needed for wheelchairs to unload from a car or van with a ramp? What about the basics of getting around stores and restaurants or the doctors office that brags about the remodel, but never actually put any thought into a wheel chair moving through the building. People get hooked on what the ADA states, but there are better ways. Every effort to improve awareness is important, but how it is applied is more important. Remember, every disability is different and the wheelchair symbol does not show that.

    • ladylikesailormouth

      Matthew, I totally see what you mean. I actually ran across some research that didn’t quite make its way into the post about the issue of handicap accessibility being reduced to visualizing a wheelchair. For example, BBC explained only 10% of England’s population that qualifies for disability services use wheelchairs.
      Also, I do understand your concerns with ADA implementation. I think the icon will help with awareness, but we need to take extra steps beyond using it to make those changes for accessibility because awareness campaigns, such as the symbols, can only do so much.

    • Vince T

      I like the optimism of this post, but this “new” symbol is a yawn. So it’s another wheelchair. What’s all the excitement about? Same old mindset, and no doubt a blind person such as myself when being guided through an airport or hospital will still be plonked into a wheelchair in honour of that tired mindset. It’s my eyes that don’t work, not my legs!

      To me, this symbol still concentrates on a person’s dis-ability, rather than accessibility, freedom to go where everyone else goes, or a supportive environment.

      And for those who consider disability irrelevant on your campus, just imagine all those people who have not had the opportunities to arrive there because of their disability, not because of their lack of talent.

      One journalist in the UK made great play of people being on disability benefits, but where were they? They didn’t travel on the London Underground, he said. That’s the whole point; they couldn’t get there in the first place, and probably found it extremely difficult to find work to travel to. Though many things have improved for people with disabilities in recent decades, there is still much to be achieved.

  6. Todd Selenka

    The old sign is good anuff.
    Personally if we want to change it to something I think it should just say Disabled parking (no photo) There are people who are disabled who walk with a cane, that are not in wheelchairs. why do we stereotype our disables as all being all in wheelchairs.

  7. Andrew

    I once saw a video that talked about a disabled woman that had a whole neighborhood help her get in bed for years. I thought it was so inspiring to see a community rally around one handicapped person and the effect that service had on the lives of those that were helping her. She talked about how it was nice to have people see her as a person that was active and giving back to those around her. The new symbol will help change that mentality that we have of the disabled.


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