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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 about how we really think about people with disabilities and what we need to do to change our thinking.

You've described the old symbol as depicting a passive, almost robotic figure whereas the people with disabilities you've met advocate for themselves and are "forward moving." I remember looking at the old symbol as a child and wondering whether the arms were the person's physical arms or the built-in arms of the chair.

Awesome point. Are the arms in the old symbol those of the person or the chair? I think that ambiguity is dangerous in shaping our unconscious attitudes about people with disabilities.

A powerful example comes from my colleague Brendon Hildreth who co-directs our project in North Carolina. Because of cerebral palsy he must speak using a talk machine, but it is not the machine that talks. There is no ambiguity in distinguishing between Brendon and the machine that he speaks through. For Brendon, our new symbol provides a means of self-advocacy—it expresses a complex emotion of: "Stop looking at me as if I'm weird just because my muscles work in a different way from yours…I'm just as active and embodied as you!"

We commonly refer to the old symbol as "the handicap sign." What would you like the new one to be called?

It is a "symbol of access." What is a "handicap"? It is a legal cheat that allows bad golfers to play with good golfers and save face. I worry that the term "handicap" reflects society's view of people with disabilities, and this just shows how important it is to change this view. I hope that our new symbol looks more like something that signifies access and less like a bad golf game—less like a "handicap" symbol.

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The 'Handicap Icon' Gets New Life