One of my favorite dance pieces is an intensely physical and emotionally charged duet between a man who uses a wheelchair and a woman who doesn’t. The dancers devour the space on stage, share body weight, pull apart and then come together in moments of conflict or tenderness. He lifts his partner overhead, spins and leans back on his wheels, changes direction abruptly, tumbles to the ground and pulls himself back up. She balances on the edges of his chair, leans on his back for support, slides, spills onto the floor and recovers to standing. This is a dance of shifting definitions of “ability” and “disability.”
I was interested, then, to read an article in the Boston Globe spotlighting recent developments with the Accessible Icon Project, another important statement on disability. The organization provides supplies such as Accessible Icon stickers and stencils, and services such as repainting of workplace signs, to “transform the old International Symbol of Access into an active, engaged image,” the project website notes.
Taking an historical view since 1968, when the erect, static symbol was introduced to indicate environmental spaces that were accessible to people who use wheelchairs or manage other disability issues, the Globe piece discusses key players in the new design and bureaucratic stumbling blocks still in the way of the design’s more widespread adoption. It also names major organizations that have taken part in changing their depiction of disability as a result of this campaign, which began as a guerrilla art project in Cambridge, Mass.
From the article:
In the three years since Sara Hendren, a Cambridge artist and writer who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, and Brian Glenney, [Ph.D.,] an assistant professor of philosophy at Gordon College, began placing their version over the existing one, the Accessible Icon Project has gone from an artistic statement to a global movement.
The original goal of the project was to begin a dialogue about the way society views disability. They felt the old symbol was stiff, robotic, with the chair functioning as a part of, not a tool for, the human. The original icon was just a wheelchair until a later designer added a head in the form of a dot on the top of the chair back.
The new symbol shows a person in motion, leading forward and moving ahead with wheels spinning.
“You have to hang out in that space of provocation where you show rather than tell,” Hendren told the Globe, “where you don’t summarily deliver a solution. I’m interested in a whole constellation of questions that start with the symbol but don’t end there.”