NY becomes first state to update the handicap symbol

| August 6, 2014 | 0 Comments

New York made history late last month when Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a bill mandating the replacement of the iconic handicap symbol. “This bill is an important step toward correcting society’s understanding of accessibility and eliminating a stigma for more than 1 million New Yorkers,” he said in a statement.

accessible beach

New York is the first state to require new signs bearing the International Symbol of Accessibility to replace it with the Icon of Access. From Keoni Cabral.

The new symbol depicts a forward-leaning person in a wheelchair with arms raised behind her, as if getting ready to push the wheels. Sen. David Carlucci (D), who cosponsored the bill with Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D), described the image as “a more active, engaging symbol,” which was the effect artist Sara Hendren and Brian Glenney, a professor at Gordon College in eastern Massachusetts, were aiming for when they first began redesigning the icon two years ago.

Sara Hendren and Brian Glenney's accessible icon

Hendren and Glenney’s Accessible Symbol. Courtesy accessibleicon.org.

The old symbol, which first came into use in the late 1960s, portrayed “a lifeless, passive, helpless, and medical representation of people with disabilities,” Glenney told the press. “We wanted to change that, to create a symbol that reminded people of what people with disabilities can do.”

Not everyone supports the redesign. “It makes you think of Paralympic athletes, of wheelchair races and speedy movements,” said Barry Gray, who chairs the committee on graphical symbols for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), in an article from the ISO last November. “But the symbol has to work in static situations. Part of its job is to mark wheelchair spaces in public transportation or indicate refuge in emergency situations, as well as lifts and toilets.”

To Gray, the redesign suggests just one type of disability, one type of person in a wheelchair, but to Hendren, writing about the criticism in a blog post, “All icons are symbols, not literal representations. Our symbol speaks to the . . . notion that the person first decides how and s/he will navigate the world, in the broadest literal and metaphorical terms.”

The law won’t take effect for approximately 100 more days, and it will only apply to the installation of new or replacement wheelchair-accessible signs. Existing signs won’t be affected.

The new or replacement signs, which are already being implemented in New York City, will also not be allowed to use the word “handicapped,” a term that supporters of the bill describe as old-fashioned and offensive. “The disability community is hindered by outdated language and symbols that stigmatize them and align them with a negative connotation or an image of immobility,” said Galef.

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Category: Disability, Regulations

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