Editorial: Newly accessible downtown should embrace new icon
Among the most important parts of the plan to redesign Concord’s Main Street is the dramatic increase in accessibility for people who use wheelchairs, canes, crutches, scooters or walkers to help them get around – and even for those who are just a little slow or unsteady on their feet. For them – and really, for all of us as we get older – the improvement may well turn out to be the most profound downtown change of all.
Given that, we encourage the city’s designers to also embrace a new symbol for use on parking spaces, parking garages, building entrances or wherever else they hope to denote handicap accessibility.
The old symbol, which has been around since 1968, is no doubt familiar to most readers: a gender-less person sitting still and strangely erect in a wheelchair. But two Massachusetts artists have recently created something new and powerful. And slowly, it’s catching on.
The new symbol, shown on this page, is the work of the Accessible Icon Project, created by Harvard graduate design student Sara Hendren and Brian Glenney, an assistant professor at Gordon College in Massachusetts. It’s an improvement on the old for reasons that become obvious and wonderful if you gaze at the icon for a moment or two:
∎ The head of the person (still strangely genderless) is tilted forward, indicating motion. As the artists explain on their website, “Here the person is the ‘driver’ or decision maker about her mobility.”
∎ The person’s arm points backward to suggest mobility. As the artists explain, “Depicting the body in motion represents the symbolically active status of navigating the world.”
∎ Similarly, the small cutouts in the wheels suggest action.
In short, the person in this icon is not confined by the wheelchair. He or she is not sitting still, passively waiting for someone to come along and push. To the contrary, the chair is making it possible for the person to zip around town – independently of others.
The old symbol – recognized as much for the vibrant blue background as for the design – is so familiar as to be invisible to most of us going about our daily routines. The new one would do double duty: It’s both practical and opinionated. It may well change the image many of us carry around in our heads about the abilities of people in wheelchairs.
Using the new symbol won’t violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act; federal officials say slight variations on the old symbol are permissible as long as there’s a wheelchair and it signifies accessibility. Already, in North Carolina, a young man with cerebral palsy has joined the effort and has persuaded a local restaurant to use the new symbol in its parking lot. His next target: the local golf course. (He and his family are also creating T-shirts with the new logo.) And, more dramatically, the Accessible Icon Project recently persuaded New York City to adopt the new symbol; officials plan to replace old signs this summer across the city.
Concord should get on board. Our own downtown will soon be a much friendlier place for people with mobility challenges. New signs will help celebrate the improvement.