The handicapped sign is getting a new look — at least in New York City.
The initial design, created in 1968, depicted a person with no head in a wheelchair. The sign has changed since then — the figure eventually got a head — and now it's trying something new.
Sara Hendren, a Harvard graduate design student, is co-creator of a guerrilla street art project that replaces the old sign with something more active.
"You'll notice in the old international symbol of access, the posture of the figure is unnaturally erect in the chair," she says. "There's something very mechanical about that."
Hendren's new design looks more like a person wheeling him or herself independently. "Ours is also leaning forward in the chair. There's a clear sense of movement, self-navigation through the world," she says.
A Sign That Brings A New Attitude
It might not seem like much of a difference, but it was enough to fire up a young man with cerebral palsy named Brendon Hildreth, who uses a wheelchair. He and Hendren met as the project gained momentum, and the North Carolina 22-year-old adopted the icon as his own.
Hendren says Hildreth has become a kind of one-man machine around this symbol. He's made t-shirts with his family and has invited local businesses and institutions to change their signage.
Hildreth can only speak through a machine that he types into, and people have looked at him differently all his life.
"He's someone who has been treated as though he had less of a complex and interesting life and wishes for his future," Hendren says.
Guerrilla Art Tactics
That misperception is what drew Hendren and her partner, Brian Glenney, to start this project. It helped that Glenney, an assistant professor at Gordon College in Massachusetts, is also somewhat of a graffiti artist on the side.
"He said, 'Well, why don't we do something?' He was used to kind of altering public property," Hendren says.
They went all over Boston, putting stickers of the new symbol over with the symbol we're all familiar with.
People began to notice, in part because what Hendren and Glenney were doing — defacing public property — is technically illegal.
"That's true, but we were glad we did, because we raised some conversation," Hendren says.
The response was so strong that they ended up sending stickers to people around the country. It took just one cold call to to reach Victor Calise, New York City's commissioner for people with disabilities, and convince him to join the cause. This summer, the old symbol will be replaced with the new one in all five boroughs.
The Power Of Symbols
But for all the successes, the project still has its critics.
"We've certainly had people who say, 'It's just an image, and I'd rather you spend your time lobbying for other kinds of concrete changes,' " Hendren says.
But she sees the new, more active symbol as an opportunity to open the conversation and change people's perceptions.
"An icon, an image, a symbol, can be a really powerful kind of seed for much larger efforts," Hendren says.
REBECCA SHEIR, HOST:
We move now from the playground to the parking lot or the bathroom or a building, anywhere, really, that you see that familiar symbol showing the profile of a person in a wheelchair: the handicapped sign.
SARA HENDREN: You'll notice in the old international symbol of access, the posture of the figure is unnaturally erect in the chair. There's something very mechanical about that.
SHEIR: Sara Hendren is a graduate design student at Harvard and the founder of The Accessible Icon Project. The original handicapped sign dates back to 1968, and Hendren has helped create a brand-new one, one that's more active, more dynamic with the person wheeling him or herself independently.
HENDREN: Ours is also leaning forward in the chair. There's a clear sense of movement, self-navigation through the world.
SHEIR: That might not seem like much of a difference, but Hendren tells us it completely changed the life of a man she met when the project first begun.
HENDREN: A young man named Brendon Hildreth who - soon after we did this community service day together, Brendon moved with his family to North Carolina. He has become a kind of one-man machine down there around this symbol. So he made T-shirts with his family. He's invited local businesses and institutions to change their signage.
SHEIR: As Hendren tells it, Hildreth, who has cerebral palsy and speaks through a machine, had a unique perspective.
HENDREN: He's someone who has been treated as though he had less of a complex and interesting life and wishes for his future. And as a result of using the icon, he's had all this opportunity to say in public speeches and to newspapers: This is what I want. What I want is what everybody else wants. I want an education, I want work that I love, and I want to not be treated as somebody who needs extra help in a particular kind of flattened way.
SHEIR: That perception was what drew Sara Hendren and her partner, Brian Glenney, an assistant professor at Gordon College, to start The Accessible Icon Project in the first place. And it didn't hurt that Glenney also happens to dabble in graffiti art.
HENDREN: And he said: Well, why don't we do something? He was used to kind of altering public property.
SHEIR: So the pair trekked all over Boston, putting up stickers of the new symbol side by side with the existing one. Of course, technically, Hendren and Glenney were defacing public property which happens to be illegal.
HENDREN: That's right, to put a fine point on it. But we were glad that we did because we raised some conversation. I mean, some people thought this was a kind of frivolous exercise, but many more people said: We see what you're doing. We want to talk more about this. And we sent stickers to people all over the country.
SHEIR: They soon caught the attention of the disability commissioner for New York City and already, this summer, the new symbol has been replacing old signs in all five boroughs. It's even unofficially been popping up in cities around the world. Sara Hendren says there are those who've asked: Why bother changing things? Isn't it just an icon? And she's ready with an answer.
HENDREN: An icon, an image, a symbol can be a really powerful kind of seed for much larger efforts and find ways to talk about our perceptions about each other, about difference.
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SHEIR: Sara Hendren is a graduate student of design at Harvard University. You can see the new accessible icon at accessibleicon.org in New York City and, who knows, maybe soon, somewhere near you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.