I designed this symbol in 1994 while a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati. I had been searching for a thesis subject and had come across an article by Paul Arthur calling for the redesign of the “handicap” symbol. My research was funded through a grant from the SEGD (Society for Environmental Graphic Design).
San Antonio was the first American city to formally adopt the symbol, and it has since inspired and been been used in sign programs by many leading corporations and public institutions including Williams College, Walmart, REI, and MOMA. People have sent me the symbol in use from far and wide including most recently Korea.
When I looked into the meaning of the word “handicapped” (literally meaning cap in hand) I found it very disturbing. My dad grew up in Dublin around the corner from Christy Brown (My Left Foot), and his story had always inspired me. He fought to be seen for his artistic and intellectual abilities, and not to be defined by his physical disabilities. I saw this as an opportunity for design to redefine how people look at each other and at the world.
In designing this symbol I tried to be sensitive to both the message and the audience. Both in word and image I sought to move away from the label “Handicapped.” With the new symbol for accessibility, the person is no longer imprisoned by the chair–the chair is merely the vehicle with which he or she gains access.
As an athlete in Dublin, I raced side by side with wheelchair athletes. I sought to capture the spirit and independence of these athletes in the symbol. The activity and movement are suggested with body positioning–the angle of the torso, and the “pushing position” of the arm. The goal is to portray an active, independent person, in sharp contrast to the former symbol which has been described as dependent, rigid and helpless.
.zip file includes: EPS and JPG