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The 'Handicap Icon' Gets New Life

Symbols shape our perceptions. A large swoosh on a stranger's T-shirt lets us, in a fraction of a moment, decode the logo to make an almost-instantaneous assessment of its wearer. Symbols are instinctually familiar, whether the contemporary shapes of the Playboy bunny or Hello Kitty or the traditional Christian cross.

The power of symbols to affect the way we perceive others drove Gordon College professor Brian Glenney to revisit the decades-old "handicap icon" we all recognize from parking spaces and bathroom stalls.

Glenney, 39, teaches philosophy at the Wenham, Mass., school and teamed up with Cambridge-based artist and researcher Sara Hendren for The Accessible Icon Project. (Hendren happens to be my sister-in-law.) Starting in 2009, they worked together to design and promote a new symbol of access that—unlike its predecessor—depicts people with disabilities as dynamic and forward-moving. The new icon made national news in May, when the city of New York adopted it as its official symbol of access.

In a recent interview, Glenney and I talked about our culture's perceptions of people with disabilities, the power of symbol, and why these issues matter for Christians.

Talk about how you became involved in this initiative. Do you have a personal connection to someone who lives with a disability?

I'm not a self-advocate or a parent advocate. I do not have a close relationship with someone who self-identifies as "disabled," but I get angry when I see people being stigmatized and disempowered, period. The Accessible Icon Project is the result of an urgent feeling of anger at a society that de-humanizes people with disabilities. Our new symbol is a conversation starter ...

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The 'Handicap Icon' Gets New Life
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June 2013

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