Redefining Ability: The International Wheelchair Sign Gets a Much-Needed Facelift

Cara Hesse | November 20, 2013

I have served on the board of directors for a non-profit organization called Triangle for the past ten years. At Triangle, we work to empower people with disabilities to lead independent lives, whether through job training, career counseling, education, or residential services. It is an amazing organization and I am inspired by their work every day. When I meet some of the wonderful people that Triangle serves, I often think about the rare disease community and how they experience very similar challenges. One of the most common challenges is around mobility and wheelchair accessibility issues. Another is around perception and the way the world tends to view people with disabilities and those who use wheelchairs.

So I was thrilled to learn that Triangle is championing a grassroots movement to change the way people with disabilities are perceived with a strikingly simple – yet ambitious – urban art project. They want to replace the 40-year-old International Wheelchair Symbol that is in office buildings, public spaces, airports and parking lots, and many other locations – everywhere. It has become such a common, recognizable symbol that for most people it blends in with the scenery or disappears into the landscape. But the current wheelchair symbol, otherwise known as the International Symbol of Access, is far from accurate in depicting the realities of people with disabilities. Though recognizable and effective, the current icon is an outdated depiction of a passive individual who is dependent on others. Replacing this symbol isn’t just about changing public signage; it’s about changing public perception.

Through my work at Genzyme, I have met some incredible rare disease advocates around the world who are passionate, committed and inspiring. They are leaders and they are visionaries. They mobilize entire communities. They also happen to use wheelchairs. When I think of Mr. Hyun-min Shin and his Korean Organization for Rare Diseases or Tiffany House of the AMDA in Texas, I don’t think of these advocates as people in wheelchairs, I think of them as leaders and influencers. That’s why I am so passionate about the Accessible Icon Project’s efforts to change this passive symbol into one that accurately depicts a person of ability, movement, engagement and independence. While the design may look simple enough, it also needed to work functionally and comply with the Americans for Disability Act (ADA), all of which took time. Issues concerning the mass production of larger stencils for use with spray paint on roads, for example, as well the ADA’s pictogram design requirements all had to be considered and addressed.

You often know that a grassroots effort is becoming a social movement when it is being talked about in news media without the help of a public relations firm or dedicated communications staff. The new symbol has been featured on National Public Radio in the U.S., newspapers, and even major media outlets like Good Morning America. It is gaining traction in companies, schools and cities across America and across the world. We couldn’t have been more excited than when the New York City Mayor's office publicly endorsed the Icon and encouraged accessible taxi providers to use the symbol on their vehicles. We are excited about New York’s support and look forward to a broader rollout in the five boroughs soon.

We need to challenge the way society views people with disabilities. A wheelchair should not be perceived as a symbol of passivity, but rather one of engagement and independence.— Mike Rodrigues, CEO, Triangle

I have been surprised at the number of times my non-profit service at Triangle has given me new insights to my work in Patient Advocacy at Genzyme and vice versa. I don’t know whether I would have been as excited or as proud or as vocal about the Accessible Icon Project had I not met the incredible leaders I’ve encountered in the rare disease community through my role at Genzyme. It just didn’t occur to me that the current icon was perpetuating such a negative perception of people with disabilities until it was pointed out to me and I had the opportunity to meet some individuals whose realities were just so different from that perception.

Please consider becoming an advocate to change the perception of people with disabilities through this new and progressive urban art project! For more information, please visit Triangle's website.

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