‘Political correctness gone mad’: Perky new handicapped symbol brings on world-wide controversy

old-Handicapped_AccessibleA few jurisdictions are adopting a new symbol denoting handicapped access that has some critics fuming, calling it a case of “political correctness gone mad.”

The current symbol, which has been the International Symbol of Accessibility by the United Nations standard since 1974, depicts a stick figure sitting upright in a wheelchair.

But someone decided to add a little pizzaz to the symbol, according to The Associated Press via AOL.

new-handicap-signSara Hendren, then a grad student at Harvard, and Brian Glenney, a philosophy professor at Gordon College in Massachusetts, reworked the traditional symbol to show the person in the wheelchair in a more active pose to project a more positive image.

They reworked the new icon in 2009 as part of a street art project, and New York state adopted it last year, with Connecticut giving it serious consideration.

Individual cities such as Phoenix and El Paso, Texas are also using the new design.

However, the new design is not without its critics, one being State University of New York at Purchase art professor Elizabeth Guffey, who is herself, disabled.

“On the face of it, it seems like a really positive step to take,” she said. However, “when you start thinking about it more fully, it brings up more questions.”

Guffey, who’s currently writing a book on the subject, said that resistance to the newly-designed symbol is greatest in the United Kingdom, where its critics call it American political correctness gone mad.

The AP reported:

Guffey, who is disabled and writing a book on the symbol’s history, said there’s been a backlash in the United Kingdom, where some view the revamp as American political correctness. Meanwhile, some countries have a reputation for misusing the original symbol, placing them in locations that are not handicapped accessible.

“As a disabled person, the actual image matters much less to me than the use of it,” she added. “It’s not being used fully or right, right now.”

Connecticut disability rights activist Cathy Ludlum says it goes beyond mere PC, and claims it’s insensitive toward the seriously disabled.

“The new symbol seems to say that independence has everything to do with the body, which it isn’t,” she said. “Independence is who you are inside.”

The AP reported:

Hendren, an assistant professor of design at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, said she felt people were underestimating her son, who has Down syndrome and does not use a wheelchair. She believes the redesigned icon could change attitudes and, ultimately, prompt more funding and better programs.

“I want it to stand for much larger efforts, to improve material conditions,” she said, adding that independence is “precisely what we want this thing to represent.”

Handicapped Signs
New handicapped sign / Source: Daily Mail

But the final arbiter may be the International Organization for Standardization. It objects to the new design, and says that the old one shouldn’t be fiddled with because it’s been universally recognized for over 40 years.

Which may be all the more reason to adopt the new design. It never hurts to remind the United Nations that we’re a sovereign nation that takes orders from no one.


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