New 'accessibility logo' aims to destigmatize disabilities, but will it work?

Left, the old symbol; right, the new accessibility icon (Accessible Icon Project)
Left, the old symbol; right, the new accessibility icon (Accessible Icon Project)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill last week that will both remove the word "handicapped" from signs for people with disabilities and update the standard wheelchair symbol with a more active "accessibility logo." 

"One of the largest concerns is that existing signage and language emphasizes the disability itself, rather than the person," a press release announcing the legislation reads. "The current universal symbol for a person with a disability represents an individual with a wheelchair, which will be updated on all new signage to portray a more active image."

The old, widely used handicapped logo — the Internationl Symbol of Access — was designed by Susanne Koefoed, a Danish design student, in a 1968 competition. The new version was created by the Accessible Icon Project, a U.S.-based group, and released to the public domain earlier this year.

But not everyone agrees with the change.

“It makes you think of Paralympic athletes, of wheelchair races and speedy movements,” Barry Gray, chairman of the International Organization for Standardization's committee on graphical symbols, wrote of the proposed design. “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.”

Sara Hendren, a member of the Accessible Icon Project, thinks Gray is missing the point.

“The arm pushing a chair is symbolic,” Hendren explained in a blog post last year. "Icons are symbols, not literal representations."

According to Hendren, the reimagined logo is a metaphor for rethinking an "enormous, complicated" issue: How we treat people with disabilities.

“The very beginning of it [was] about altering an image," she told the Washington Post, "but the real work of the project is a kind of sustained conversation about disability rights."

David Airey, a graphic designer and the author of "Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities," says it's too early to judge the project's effectiveness.

"The use of a chair will always mean the design isn't representative of everyone with a disability," Airey told Yahoo News. "What's important is that people understand the meaning of the symbol, whether there's an element of motion to the design or not."

Still, he understands the critics.

"I rarely see anyone in a wheelchair who leans forward to such an extent unless they're in a race," Airey said. "Perhaps there was an iteration between the new and old where the figure didn't seem to be in such a hurry."