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on boundedness: faqs about the accessible icon

I’m interviewed in this NPR story on the Accessible Icon Project. It aired on All Things Considered on Sunday, and the response we’ve gotten has been, once again, overwhelmingly positive. We love that our resources are open-access, and we’ve been glad to connect with so many likeminded people all over the world.

But I haven’t promoted this particular story through my own networks, for several reasons. It’s glaring, first of all, for NPR to use the term “wheelchair-bound” in the very first paragraph of the story online. A person uses a wheelchair—no more, no less. Language counts, and the idea that a wheelchair is doing the primary action, “binding” a body, is precisely the notion we’re trying to upend.

Inevitably, unfailingly bounded are the necessary confines of the journalistic narrative. We’ve been lucky that some writers have given us the long form to talk about the work—at FastCo Design, for instance, and at Print Magazine. But the NPR spot, like many other venues, is a short piece, where most of the nuance of the project was left on the cutting room floor. This is a fairly universal phenomenon, and while we’d be churlish to complain about such generous coverage, some of the skeptical feedback we’ve gotten in response echoes the FAQs we get about the project. I’m revamping much about the web site and will include these questions, but I’ll put out some quick thoughts here.

1. “Not everyone is a wheelchair athlete. What about people who don’t push their chairs with their own arms?” Right. We’ve talked about this at length in all of our interviews, and it almost never gets included in the final cut. The arm pushing a chair is symbolic—as all icons are symbols, not literal representations. See our icon features breakdown here. And consider what happens when you go to a national park or a campsite and find the 2D icons posted there: They tell you that you can hike, or fish, or ski, or any number of things. There’s no presumption that you can or will choose to do all of those things. It’s meant to suggest a general set of meanings. Our symbol speaks to the general primacy of personhood, and to the notion that the person first decides how and why s/he will navigate the world, in the broadest literal and metaphorical terms. To us, this evokes the disability rights mantra that demands “nothing about us without us.”

2. “I identify as disabled, but I don’t use a chair. Why should that symbol speak for all kinds of accessibility?” First, the featured image with this post is of Brendon Hildreth, one of our co-directors of the project. Brendon has cerebral palsy but doesn’t use a chair; he claims this symbol for all of the big-picture reasons above. The chair itself is secondary.

Second, it is indeed an interesting question to consider how other symbols might stand in for or supplement the International Symbol of Access. We’ve spoken to designers about taking up that challenge as a thought project.

But consider the importance of a highly standardized and internationally recognizable symbol. It guarantees that its use will signal the availability of similar accommodations wherever it appears, and its reliable color combination and scale make it easy to spot on a crowded city street, or in an airport. Icons are standardized, 2D, and high contrast for a reason: to make them readily visible to anyone, anywhere. There’s power in that.

3. “You’re not the first designers to reconsider this icon. It’s been done before.” Yep. We know. From its first inception, this project was about collecting various existing versions of the icon, to trace when and how the more organic designs could be found. We never set out to make the best or most original graphic; it was readily available online and elsewhere. What we wanted was to intervene and “edit” the old symbol as a tactic: a mildly transgressive act to spark a new conversation not about professional design, but about the meaning of symbols and what they represent. About access for wheelchairs, sure, but more about capital-A Access, in the largest sense: political, cultural, and otherwise. As we’ve said repeatedly in interviews—some of which makes it to the story, and much of which doesn’t—we’ve never claimed “firstness.” What we’ve done differently is to create the conditions for people who normally don’t get their voices in the press to be heard. In this way the work is a social arts practice, not a design project per se.

4. “It’s just a symbol. Why don’t you spend your time and money on social goods and projects that have “real impact”? Have you read the history of, say, ACT UP and the Silence = Death graphic campaign? And any number of historical examples of political propaganda? The visual environment shapes our cognition in profound ways: some of which may be conscious, but most of which is unconscious. We’re pretty sure that the symbolic matters.

I have long observed, along with the Austrian arts collective Wochenklausur, that you’re far more likely to get an important political issue talked about if you frame it as culture, rather than a social-goods story. Artists have a long tradition of working tactically with the media as it operates, for better or worse; we’ve continued that here. The fact that many self-advocates with disabilities have gotten a microphone for their own concerns marks success for us.

Feel free to add your questions here or on Facebook, etc. More to come.

4 thoughts on “on boundedness: faqs about the accessible icon

  1. Your reinterpretation of the generic accessibility symbol is brilliant. It is instantly recognizable and shifts the focus to ability from disability without having to start from messaging from scratch. It is simply better. Thank you.

  2. Love this and especially glad you called out NPR on the language bit. My recent favorite to notice along those lines is “He’s ADD.”
    I recently heard someone complaining that they aren’t homophobic but they resent that the LGBT movement has laid claim to rainbows. It is sad when a symbol is about access and openness and brings out closedness. But even then it’s probably better to bring it out than not to. Thanks for this.

  3. Pingback: against re-branding; against placebo politics | Abler.

  4. Pingback: New ‘accessibility logo’ aims to destigmatize disab | Blog.CSD

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