Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Thoughts on Sara Hendren and the Revamped ISA Icon

So, there's been an update to the International Sign for Access icon (the little dude in the wheelchair drawn in white against the blue background), and New York City is going to adopt it. Cambridge, Massachusetts resident Sara Hendren did the design. You can read a little more about her  and the redesign process for the ISA icon here.

It's not just New York that's jumped on board with this:

  • Dr. Satendra Singh, coordinator of the Enabling Unit at University College of Medical Sciences & Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital in Delhi, India, has made a request to his government that the updated design be adopted through the entire country. 

  • Gary Christenson, Mayor of Malden Massachusetts, wants to hire integrated groups of students to paint the new design on the town's handicapped parking spaces.

  • Mystic River Charter School and Gordon College (which partnered with Sara Hendren to create the new icon) display it on their grounds.

  • Talbot's, Goodwin Proctor, and CBD Garage in Malden are corporate partners.

Learn more about the Accessible Icon Project here.

Sara Hendren: Why I Like The New ISA Icon

Let me preface this by saying that I don't have anything at all against Sarah Hendren's new ISA icon. I like it, actually, and I think that Sara Hendren did what she set out to do with it. It's a more active, engage depiction of a disabled person, and makes me think of someone moving through life more on their own steam, their own terms. It's a "nice look", if you will, for disabled people, although I can understand the criticism that the icon looks a bit too much like a wheelchair racer, and therefore not really representative of most people in wheelchairs.

But if we're going to get into that...the ISA has always been meant to represent disabled people, and there are a whole lot of disabled people that don't even use a wheelchair. So that particular criticism falls a bit short of the mark for me.

No, my concerns about it lie in a whole other realm.

Sara Hendren: My Concerns About the New ISA Icon

Granted, I know nothing about Dr. Satendra Singh, or Gary Christenson and the City of Malden, or Gordon College, or the prior disability advocacy efforts of Talbot's and Goodwin Proctor. From the little that I've read, it sounds like Singh is a disability advocate in his own right, that Christenson has sights on making Malden much more disability-friendly in general, and that Gordon College has absolute champions for disability rights in Disability Icon team members Brian Glenney and Cyndi McMahon.

New York contact Victor Calaise, the Commissioner of the New York Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities and a disabled man himself, sounds very excited about the project as well.

But I'm cautious. I'd say to any city or institution that embraces the use of Sara Hendren's revamped icon: It's easy to put up signs and paint parking spots. Are you truly on-board with the philosophy behind the new icon? How are you going to show *that*?

New York, I'm Looking At You!

I don't even live in America, and I haven't forgotten the fuss that Michael Bloomberg put up when the Justice Department told him that he had to increase the number of accessible taxis in the city from 2%. I haven't forgotten that you told disabled New Yorkers that they could make do with a dial-a-cab system that sent cabs chronically late, if it sent them at all. And I haven't forgotten that the cab that your administration chose to be *the* New York cab for the next decade isn't accessible without substantial and costly retrofitting, even though there are factory-ready accessible models available.

And I haven't forgotten these comments from Michael Bloomberg...and if I haven't, I'm sure that disabled New Yorkers haven't either:

  • “It’s always somebody who says, ‘oh, no, everything has to be handicapped accessible, or wheelchair accessible,’ but that’s not necessarily what the people that are in wheelchairs need,On the lawsuit against the city stipulating that more accessible taxis are needed:"It just doesn't work in a city like ours, and I don't know that the [U.S. attorney's office] understands how people live in the city and the traffic patterns and that sort of thing,"

  • On the ruling, in appeals, that 231 accessible cabs out of over 13 000 is sufficient: "This ruling is consistent with common sense and the practical needs of both the taxi industry and the disabled, and we will continue our efforts to assist disabled riders."

It still makes me want to beat my head against a wall.

Sara Hendren and the New ISA Icon: The Bottom Line

As much as I like Sara Hendren's revamped ISA icon, I think that there's a danger here. It's not enough to just put it up on our signs and paint it in our handicapped parking spaces and give ourselves self-congratulatory pats on the back because of it.

If there's anything that I've learned since starting to write this blog, it's that the fight has to be deeper, wider, and more substantive than that.

Again, New York, I'm looking at you in particular. The next mayor is really going to have to wow me before I'll be convinced that this move is anything but lip-service.


  1. I agree, it will take A LOT to convince ,it will take A LOT to convince me this is not lip-service.

  2. Well, I feel like an olde curmudgeon...I like neither the old wheelchair sign or the new one and they associate wheelchairs with disability access and parking and bathrooms. A wide array of disabled people, especially the elderly with mobility or respiratory issues who don't use chairs, people with walkers and canes, people who have disabilities not visible but need access. Having the wheelchair logo plastered all over allows the able to look askance at anyone who is disabled but not wheelchair bound. Handicap parking, handicap bathrooms, handicap access...words can be sufficient....a wheelchair logo is limiting and sets up those who access services who are not in a chair? Crazy? maybe....

  3. Glad that someone else can see it, Amy. I was thinking that maybe I was being a bit too cynical, but it's really what I think. Thanks for your comment!

  4. I don't think you're being a curmudgeon. I was giving this some further thought today, and I think you're absolutely right - it's a very limiting and exclusionary symbol, given the scope what's considered disability. I wondered if a way to get around it (since not everyone can read) would be to adopt a symbol composed of colours, like the equality symbol that the gay marriage movement has adopted (red stripe, blue stripe, red stripe). But the icon must also apparently by ADA-compliant. I'm not sure what that means, logistically, I just read it in one of the articles that I found. It all seems very...dare I say needlessly?....complicated, when disabled people are facing life-and-death issues that aren't being addressed. I think that my hope for this revised symbol is that the dialogue that comes out around it will draw attention to some of these larger issues. Appreciate hearing your take on this.

  5. Sarah, thanks for your feedback. I've been a part of the Accessible Icon Project for about a year and I can affirm that provoking conversations about how we image disability, accessibility, and inclusion has always been the primary thrust of the Project. Our intention has not been to replace the old International Symbol of Access so much as it has been to create dialogical art that hopefully helps lead us to a more inclusive world.

    As you suggest in your concerns about NYC, we would be troubled by people who use the Icon as a mere means of marketing or inclusive optics. Fortunately many of our partners like the Clarks Companies, N.A., the City of Malden, and Talbots, are organizations that are truly committed to inclusion and have expressed this commitment by hiring people with disabilities, investing in excellent education services for all students, etc.

    Happy to find your blog. Thanks for the critical discussion!

  6. I'm so glad that I was online when the notification about your comment came in.

    First, thank you for coming here and reading!

    Any criticism that I have of the icon itself is criticism that I'd have of the ISA icon in general, as I talked about in my response to Phil...namely that many people who need accommodation don't use wheelchairs. But overall I like what you've done with this design, and I'm impressed with the way your partners are using it to promote integration. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on the website to see where the project goes.

    As far as New York goes...I'll admit that the accessible taxi debacle has soured me. But you seem so far to have been able to find good partners that are backing up their commitment to using the icon with action toward making the world a more inclusive place, so perhaps you are exactly what New York needs. :)

    Thank you again for reading and commenting. It's an honour.


  7. Thanks Sarah for a nice post. We need more debate like this to highlight disability issues and work together inclusion of disability in 'Millennium Developmental Goals'. I appreciate your blog posts as well as Goldfish's very informative link of Lisa's article on 'I am not a person with disability.' About myself, well, taking cue from Lisa, I am person with mobility impairment made disabled by society. Keep sharing the pearls.

  8. Dr. Satendra, thank you so much for reading and commenting!

    "Disabled by society"...it's so true, isn't it?

    I will check out Lisa's post on Goldfish's blog (a favourite blog of mine as well).

    I really appreciate that you and the Accessible Icon Project have taken the time to read and consider one little blogger's opinion. Be well.

    - Sarah