Amazing new technologies are helping people with severe mobility issues get around more independently, from wheelchairs that climb stairs to wheelchairs controlled by breathing, magnetic tongue piercings, or even thoughts. But for the majority of people with mobility issues, which will include almost everyone at one point or other in their lifetime, much simpler technologies can make a huge difference. Universal design principles in public spaces, like ramps and elevators, prevent needing a mobility aid from preventing someone from fully participating.
For more than forty years, public spaces deliberately designed to be accessible to people with disabilities have been designated with the International Symbol of Access (ISA). The original design by Susanne Koefoed was simply of a wheelchair, but the committee added a "head" to make sure there the symbol wasn't confused as some sort of monogram logo of letters. Making the symbol depict a person using an assistive device, rather than just the device itself made the symbol take on a larger meaning, coming to represent not just access, but also disability in general and people with disabilities of all kinds, not just wheelchair users.
Recently, this symbol has started to change. In 2005 VSA Arts redesigned the ISA from a weirdly square wheelchair-turned-person sitting passively to an active person who is using a wheelchair. The new symbol better represents the mobility and access that the symbol implies; no longer is the person literally made out of their assistive device, but the device enables the person.
This kind of relatively small design change can make a big difference in how we view dis/ability and access and can make real changes in how we design assistive devices and public spaces to be more accessible to all. I recently saw a fantastic talk about these issues by Sara Hendren, an artist whose work deals with issues of disability, interdependence, and assistive technologies. Her recent project, funded by the Awesome Foundation, takes on the challenge of changing the ubiquitous symbol, editing the ISA from the passive white-on-blue to an active, and brightly colored new symbol, in the process making the ISA visible to those of us privileged enough not to notice it.
Through several iterations with her collaborator, philosopher Brian Glenney, Sara designed stickers that overlay the new active figure onto the old signs. They've been popping up around Boston and Cambridge, editing the symbol rather than replacing it, beginning the slow process of evolving towards new images and new conceptions of disability. She writes about the choice to edit rather than replace in the recent issue of MONU magazine on Editing Urbanism: "I felt strongly that our decision to edit the image should make its own process visible, resulting in this clear-backed icon that fits over a number of standard, traditional signs. The juxtaposition of old and new draws attention to the comparison, and to the unconscious ways we consume images that drive our ideas about one another."
No one symbol can represent all the flavors of human ability, but art and design like Sara's work can make us ask questions about the things that we consider normal, like the very idea of "normal" vs. "disabled" in the first place. New designs and technologies and wider awareness and deployment of old technologies can evolve not just how we define disability, but how inclusive and accessible our society is. You can read more about Sara's work here and follow her blog and on twitter to learn more.