Moving Forward: Glenney Shows Why Symbols Matter Around Campus

Turn into any parking lot and it’s easy to spot the handicapped spaces by the traditional blue and white accessibility icon: a stationary wheelchair under a static stick figure. But this month, the handicapped spaces across Gordon’s campus show a new icon, a person leaning forward, arm in the air as if to push the wheels, making the College the first in the nation to display the new, more engaged symbol.

Thanks to the efforts of Brian Glenney, assistant professor of philosophy, who collaborated on the design with Sara Hendren, graduate student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the new symbol challenges how people perceive those who are disabled. The forward moving icon, which the two designed and printed locally, grew out of two years of research in Glenney’s Philosophical Psychology Lab as well as advocacy in and around Boston. As a result, one local town is in the process of updating its wheelchair symbols with Glenney and Hendren’s new one and a few area businesses have done the same. But Gordon is the first college to make the switch as Glenney, students from an aesthetics class and physical plant staff replaced the old signs with new ones on October 22, 2012.

“The (old) handicap symbol, visible in every public building in the western world, offers a lifeless, passive, helpless and medical representation of people with disabilities,” Glenney said. “I realized that this 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.”A former graffiti artist whose scholarship focuses primarily on sensory perceptions and sensory substitution devices, Glenney has long been interested in how symbols affect conceptual categories. He met Hendren in 2009 when they volunteered to create an art installation together on the theme of “trans-humanism” for Gordon’s art gallery. Because of their scholarship interests, the two began to consider the correlation between technology and personhood, and realized that people with disabilities were leading the conversation because of their dependence on technology for daily human functions.

“To us, the most clear cases of technology and personhood in sync are individuals who use wheelchairs, but we thought this (traditional) symbol focused more on what they could not do,” Glenney said. “We wanted to change that, to create a symbol that reminded people of what people with disabilities can do, and the Accessible Icon Project quickly went from art to advocacy.”

Glenney and Hendren created stickers and stencils and began posting the new icon. They also formed a partnership with Triangle Inc., an advocacy group for people with disabilities in Malden, MA, who has transformed its own parking lot with the new icon and has now teamed up with Glenney and Hendren to bring the symbol to others. The team shares the intellectual property rights for the Accessible Icon Project, has launched a web site (, and has even received corporate sponsorships and endorsements for the new icon.

“The Accessible Icon Project is part of a general attempt to bring about a public re-conception of what it means to be disabled, either physically or cognitively,” said Glenney. “We’d love to have this on every college campus in the nation, updating the icon language in how we think about people with disabilities: active people who are moving forward.”

For more information on the Accessible Icon Project, please click here.

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