Disability Icon Gets Upgrade

By Daryl Hannah

A lot has changed in the 46 years since Susanne Koefoed’s design became the International Symbol for Access, also known as the Wheelchair Symbol. Now, thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of “mental or physical disability”; there’s an Office of Disability Employment Policy housed within the Department of Labor; and, based on The 2014 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity survey results, industry-leading companies are paying closer attention to their employees and consumers with disabilities more than ever.

However, despite this progress, the international symbol for disabilities has remained relatively unchanged since 1968. But one organization is trying to change that.

The new icon is the brainchild of The Accessible Icon Project, a Massachusetts-based not-for-profit co-founded by professors Sara Hendren and Brian Glenney. And unlike its predecessor, this upgrade is meant to reflect the active and determined lives people living with disabilities lead. Among other changes, in the new version the head is forward to indicate forward motion both physically and intellectually, and the arms point backward to show the dynamic mobility of a chair user, regardless of whether or not she uses her arms.

“The symbol does not ‘represent’ people with disabilities, but symbolizes the idea that all people withdisabilities can be active and engaged in their lived environment,” reads The Accessible Icon Project’s website. “Our active accessibility symbol helpsre-imagine how society and individuals view people with disabilities.”

Several cities, mostly in Massachusetts, have adopted the new accessible icon, and in July, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a measure to make New York the first state to universally adopt the new symbol.

“New York is again leading the way by being the first state in the nation to update our outdated ‘handicap’ signs with a more active, engaging symbol. Working together, we will continue to be a shining example for disability rights throughout the country,”State SenatorDavid Carlucci (D) said in a statement. He andAssemblywoman Sandy Galef (D) co-sponsored the bill, which has no fiscal impactbecause it only requires new signs to carry the updated icon. The bill also drops the word “handicapped” from signs and communications in favor of the word “accessible.”

Other entities, including the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars, Twitter, The University of Massachusetts Amherst and Boston Medical Center have all signed up as partners with The Accessible Icon Project and have agreed to update their symbols.

The subtle but significant change in how people view people with disabilities is only one part of the larger issues impacting people with disabilities. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and this year’s theme”Expect. Employ. Empower.”reflects the growing commitment by industry-leading companies to engage and employ people with disabilities.

It’s estimated that little more than one-quarter of people with disabilities are in the workforce, and the median monthly income for people with a severe disability still lags significantly behind people with no disability.

“The very beginning of it is aboutaltering an image, but the real work of the project is a kind of sustained conversation about disability rights,” Hendren says.

Leading that conversation in the corporate sector are the 2014 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, all of which offer telecommuting and more than 80 percent of which work with disability-recruiting organizations and mention on their website people with disabilities as a valued segment of their workforce.

The 2014 DiversityInc Top 10 Companies for People with Disabilities are: EY, Procter & Gamble, Boehringer Ingelheim, IBM, General Motors, Wyndham Worldwide, WellPoint, The Hartford Financial Services Group, BASF and AT&T.

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