Monday, June 3, 2013

When Your Logo Isn't a Logo

Minor controversy emerged here in New York City last week as the Mayor's office unveiled a new symbol to indicate accessibility for people with disabilities:

New Icon

Old Icon

The new symbol garnered some negatives from critics, as noted in this article.  Among other things, blind people objected because the icon seems to equate disabilities with mobility disabilities only, thus leaving blind or perhaps deaf people out.

Moreover, others simply didn't see a need to change.  After all, the traditional wheelchair symbol enjoys universal recognition in the industrialized world.

So why change?  I'd argue that more than saying "this facility offers access to people with disabilities," it serves another perhaps higher purpose--branding disability.

According to the article, the designers (from Gordon College in Massachusetts) believe the old icon depicts people with disabilities "as limited, helpless and inaccurately passive" while the new one suggests the disabled as "dynamic" and "leaning forward."  (Steady, Sheryl Sandberg).

I couldn't agree more.

The handicapped symbol (yes, I know that many people with disabilities hate that word) has become a de facto logo for people with disabilities.  While it nominally defines the parking spaces, bathrooms and doors they can use, it has become shorthand for an entire group of people, much in the way that gays often use rainbows or pink triangles or, for that matter, religious people use crosses, stars or other simple icons.  

Normally, I believe in keeping recognizable elements the same--recognition trumps most things.  However, while many people--with and without disabilities--may have given little thought to the old icon, the new look forces them to think about this one.  It encourages people to think about what people with disabilities can do rather than what they can't do.  I think it also encourages people with disabilities in particular to challenge themselves, or at least challenge those without disabilities to think about them differently.

While the new icon won't bring life back to damaged spinal columns, retinas or cochlear nerves, it will make people think again.  It will, I think, rebrand disability.

What do you think?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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