The power of a symbol

altered accessibility signA year ago I wrote a post, Guerrilla Art is Changing Perceptions of Agency for the Disabled, about two New York artists, Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren, who started a culture-jamming project of modifying public ‘disabled accessible’ signs. Their aim was to make the person-in-a-wheelchair symbol more energetic by changing the angle of movement, and adding a sense of agency to the figure. They wanted to counter the message of passivity embedded in the traditional accessibility symbol.

Their work caught the attention of New York city officials, and the new symbol soon became recognized in New York city.

 

updated disabled symbolFast-forward a year, and Governor Cuomo recently signed an updated accessibility icon into New York state law. (See press release.) The new official symbol of accessibility for New York state features a much more active and engaged image, and it very closely follows the original guerrilla art design. After the artists placed the symbol in the public domain, it was turned into official signage by Conrad Lumm and Katrina Otuonye for SmartSign, and is being distributed by MyParkingSign on a mostly donation or discount basis to encourage implementation of this important revision as fast as possible. (See MyParkingSign’s accessibility campaign.)

As Conrad Lumm says, “Ambient messaging about people with disabilities has the potential to stifle job prospects and quality of life, so the Accessible Icon designed by Hendren and Glenney is an important corrective. We look forward to rolling out (and donating) indoor wayfinding signage that includes the Accessible Icon, too. It makes us unspeakably proud that New York state is making this switch, and we hope more states follow.”

What I love about this story is not just that disabled people in New York have a better public symbol, but that the movement towards this change came from the grassroots. Culture-jamming and guerrilla art can be defined as the people talking back to a culture whose messages and images are largely corporate- or institutionally-driven. That two artists took it upon themselves to say, “Here is a better way to symbolize this particular sector of our society,” and that their idea was seen and acted upon by those with the power and resources to move the change into law, and distribute it statewide, is truly inspiring.

Now it’s time for Oregon to update its disabled signage!