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The most common, universal symbol for accessibility (on the left) features a medical image of someone in a wheelchair—lifeless, helpless, passive. Temporarily able-bodied people tend to look at people who have disabilities that way, seeing need without recognizing capability and giftedness.

A new icon (on the right) pushes that stereotype aside. The needy stick figure makes way for a person leaning forward, arm in the air as if to push wheels that are already in motion. The new symbol was developed by a Gordon College philosophy professor, Brian Glenney, in collaboration with a Harvard Design student, Sara Hendren.

Glenney explains, “I realized that this [passive] representation was actually part of my own real perception of this population, and I didn’t think I was the only one. So the Accessible Icon Project began as a way of correcting this perception by re-imagining the symbols we use to represent people with disabilities.”

All accessible* parking signs at offices of the CRC in Burlington, Byron Center, Grand Rapids, and Palos Heights feature the new symbol. If your church or business wishes to upgrade your signs, stickers can be purchased from the Accessible Icon Project for only $3 and a parking lot stencil is available too for painting contractors.

Our words and symbols both reflect and influence our thinking. These new symbols help us take a small step forward in our thinking and perceptions about people with disabilities.


I love the way you always manage to find new topics Mark, in your perpetual quest for more understanding of those needing a little extra help.   The last sentence in your post made me wonder,...  why is "handicapped" less acceptable than "disabled".  It would seem that having a limit or "cap" on our handiness, might be less demeaning than being "dis" or "un" abled.   Perhaps it is not good to get too hung up on it.   But I am curious why one and not the other.   Will disabled eventually receive some of the same undesireable connotations, and will we have to change that term in the future?   Maybe the best term is wheelchair access.  This would be good for anyone who needs a smooth gradual surface.  Anyway, I appreciate your concerns.   Having had some recent surgery, I had problems and great discomfort with steps for a couple days.   For a few days I was looking for elevators, even though normally I don't use them unless forced, or more than three floors.  Now I'm not allowed to lift much weight for the next few weeks.  So there was, and still is a cap on my handiness. 

Mark Stephenson on December 3, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

John, thanks for your note. Many people (I WAS among them) say that "handicap" should be avoided because it comes from an old British term for beggars who approached people with cap in hand. I learned recently from Snopes, that this etymology of "handicap" is incorrect. Some people distinguish "handicap" from "disability" by saying that "handicap" describes environmental and attitudinal barriers that keep people with disabilities from fully participating in society, while "disability" describes a functional limitation that someone lives with due to a intellectual, emotional, physical, or sensory impairment. Nearly all the literature I read that has come out in the last 10 years, writers eschew the word "handicap", but I'm not really sure why. Yes, the word "disability" may fall into disfavor someday too, but right now it is the most common term.

Just a little spiritual thought.  Do you realize, that when it comes to entering heaven, to being with Christ, every single one of us is "disabled"?  For everyone of us, the step is too high, the doors are too heavy, the doors open the wrong way, and we need help, the help of Jesus, to open the door, make the crooked path straight.  When it comes to that, everyone single one of us is handicapped and disabled.  Praise the Lord for his Love!! 

Mark Stephenson on December 3, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes, we have no ability on our own to earn our way into God's favor, and one could call that our greatest disability, shared by all humankind. However, I don't every use the term "disabilty" to describe our sin for a reason. Many people with disabilities have been rubbed raw by the association many people make between their disabilty and human sinfulness. Sometimes the connection is very direct. For example, one time a woman told me that my daughter lives with severe, multiple disabilities because my wife and I don't have enough faith that God can cure her of these disabilities. Besides this painfully common accusation, many people with disabilities are told or assumed to have done something really bad to deserve the disability they live with. In fact, the word "monster" (which comes from the Latin verb "monere" which means "to warn") first was used to refer to people with visible disabilities. They were warnings to the rest of society that if you violate the will of the gods, you will experience their wrath.

I'm sure that you had none of this in mind in what you wrote, but for these reasons I prefer never to associate "disability" with sin.

Well yes, Mark, but disability, disease, poor eyesight, weeds, is all a result of sin, of our sinful condition, of the curse brought on this world by sin.   It is not caused by a particular sin.  But no one is immune.  It's only a matter of degree, of our perception.    It is our inability to pay for our own sin that makes us unable to make our own path straight and smooth.   We cannot open the door ourselves;  we are told to knock, and the door will be opened, by Christ.  Seeing and knowing this puts any disability we have, into a better perspective.   As painful as it may be, the inability to walk is a very small disability, compared to the inability to enter heaven under our own power.   It is a small inability, compared to the inability to recognize Jesus as our Saviour and Lord.  This is a great truth! 

Mark Stephenson on December 4, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

John, absolutely, we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But the question of what heaven will be like raises a lot of questions for people. You might want to check out the blogs I wrote: Will People Have Disabilities in the New Heavens and Earth: Part 1 and Part 2. Also, part 1 was posted on Think Christian. I give all these links because the comments are very interesting!

Very cool new symbol, and thoughtful reasoning.

1.  New Symbol is Way Cool !!!   Amazing how much more positive it makes me feel.

2.  Regarding the terminology; handicapped vs disabled.  Frankly After chasing the latest "acceptable" terminolgy for decades, from political views, to race to physical abilities (or lack thereof), etc.,  I'm getting tired of doing it.  Just wait long enough and the new terms will no longer be acceptable.  I.e. the new acceptable will eventually become the old offensive.  I'm tired of chasing the proverbial tail on the latest "politically correct" terminology.  Maybe people need to lighten up a bit.  I too have "handicaps," "disabilities," "incapacities," "afflictions," "limitations,"impediments," "shortcomings,"incompetencies," "weaknesses," "inadequacies," "disqualifications," "frailties," "debilities," "lassitudes," etc., etc, etc.  But frankly, there are more important things for me to focus on and rejoice in -- "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things."  Phil. 4:8


I don't mind either symbol, but in the light hearted interest of seeing the humorous side of things, I hope when people see the new symbol they do not automatically assume that the facility is providing a place for wheelchair basketball.  :) 

Speaking of humor, a colleague mentioned to me today about the new symbol (isn't it great that people are talking about it?!) that the symbol would have even more impact if there were a road kill squirrel behind the wheelchair user who (by mistake of course) killed the squirrel as the user raced along in that chair!

John Zylstra on December 6, 2012

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Or, next symbol... a squirrel in a small wheelchair following the racing wheelchair.... 

Check out this article in Fast Company about the new accessibility icon. It's now the symbol of choice for New York City!

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