REBECCA SHEIR, HOST:
We move now from the playground to the parking lot or the bathroom or a building, anywhere, really, that you see that familiar symbol showing the profile of a person in a wheelchair: the handicapped sign.
SARA HENDREN: You'll notice in the old international symbol of access, the posture of the figure is unnaturally erect in the chair. There's something very mechanical about that.
SHEIR: Sara Hendren is a graduate design student at Harvard and the founder of The Accessible Icon Project. The original handicapped sign dates back to 1968, and Hendren has helped create a brand-new one, one that's more active, more dynamic with the person wheeling him or herself independently.
HENDREN: Ours is also leaning forward in the chair. There's a clear sense of movement, self-navigation through the world.
SHEIR: That might not seem like much of a difference, but Hendren tells us it completely changed the life of a man she met when the project first begun.
HENDREN: A young man named Brendon Hildreth who - soon after we did this community service day together, Brendon moved with his family to North Carolina. He has become a kind of one-man machine down there around this symbol. So he made T-shirts with his family. He's invited local businesses and institutions to change their signage.
SHEIR: As Hendren tells it, Hildreth, who has cerebral palsy and speaks through a machine, had a unique perspective.
HENDREN: He's someone who has been treated as though he had less of a complex and interesting life and wishes for his future. And as a result of using the icon, he's had all this opportunity to say in public speeches and to newspapers: This is what I want. What I want is what everybody else wants. I want an education, I want work that I love, and I want to not be treated as somebody who needs extra help in a particular kind of flattened way.
SHEIR: That perception was what drew Sara Hendren and her partner, Brian Glenney, an assistant professor at Gordon College, to start The Accessible Icon Project in the first place. And it didn't hurt that Glenney also happens to dabble in graffiti art.
HENDREN: And he said: Well, why don't we do something? He was used to kind of altering public property.
SHEIR: So the pair trekked all over Boston, putting up stickers of the new symbol side by side with the existing one. Of course, technically, Hendren and Glenney were defacing public property which happens to be illegal.
HENDREN: That's right, to put a fine point on it. But we were glad that we did because we raised some conversation. I mean, some people thought this was a kind of frivolous exercise, but many more people said: We see what you're doing. We want to talk more about this. And we sent stickers to people all over the country.
SHEIR: They soon caught the attention of the disability commissioner for New York City and already, this summer, the new symbol has been replacing old signs in all five boroughs. It's even unofficially been popping up in cities around the world. Sara Hendren says there are those who've asked: Why bother changing things? Isn't it just an icon? And she's ready with an answer.
HENDREN: An icon, an image, a symbol can be a really powerful kind of seed for much larger efforts and find ways to talk about our perceptions about each other, about difference.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHEIR: Sara Hendren is a graduate student of design at Harvard University. You can see the new accessible icon at accessibleicon.org in New York City and, who knows, maybe soon, somewhere near you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.