Symbolic Evolution Oct 4, 2012

by Rick Rader, MD

I knew one of my colleagues was having a rough day putting the finishing touches on a grant with a looming deadline. I can't remember exactly what I emailed him, but it was designed to give him about 30 seconds of some light humor. I knew immediately that it served its purpose when he simply emailed me, :)

It was what has probably emerged as the most recognized emailed symbol—the "happy face." The symbol was derived from the Smiley Face J, popularized in the early 60's. The yellow Smiley Face was the brainchild of Harvey Ball, an American commercial artist working for State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester, MA. He was given an assignment to create a happy face to boost the morale of the employees. It took him 10 minutes and he was paid $45. It spread across the globe and was the impetus for the accompanying mantra "Have a nice day." The keyboard "smiley face" or :) is known as a "emoticon," a pictorial representation of a facial expression using punctuation marks and letters and is typically used to designate a person's mood. It works; as most symbols are designed to do.

Symbols were developed about 30,000 years ago while writing appeared about 7,000 years ago. Human communication was advanced with the emergence of speech, approximately 200,000 years ago. Speech was imperfect (a message that announces itself to me daily) and humankind came up with the idea of communicating with symbols. They were clear, more precise and had staying power. The oldest known symbols were crafted during the Upper Paleolithic era (30,000 BC) as part of cave paintings. Earliest symbols were the circle (to represent the sun), the cross, the tree and the enlarged belly of the pregnant female.

As symbols began to represent obvious objects (sun, moon, animals, warriors) it was obvious that some fine tuning needed to take place. How do you use objects to communicate "ideas" or "concepts?" How do you transform the symbol for the sun to represent the "heat" or "warmth" that it creates? Enter the "ideogram." The use of pictures to represent ideas is generally achieved through familiarity with prior convention. Thus, the traffic sign with pictures of children carrying school books doesn't simply mean that children can carry books, but by convention it means to be alert for school children who may be in the vicinity. The "ideogram" takes hold and the message is as solidified as the text, "Caution: School children" ...only more so! The symbol has staying power and conveys the message thru a network of sprinting neurons, not strolling neurons.

One symbol that is permanently assigned to a bank of neurons to readers of Exceptional Parent nal Symbol of Access."

You know it as 

It has become powerful enough that its appearance on a pole, or painted on the ground, with no other words, identifies the area as being restricted for the parking of cars used by people with disabilities. In addition to parking spaces, it is also used to mark a public lavatory with facilities designed for wheelchair users, a button used to activate an automatic door, an accessible transit station, or a bus that is equipped with lifts designed to pick up wheelchairs.

By the late 1960's the Disability Rights Movement was picking up steam across the globe and the need for a universal barrier free symbol was gaining attention. There were different "access symbols" being used in France, Australia, Canada, England and the United States. The lack of familiarity and recognition was derailing the critical mass that people with disabilities were advocating and pushing forward. In the late 60's Rehabilitation International's "International Commission on Technology and Accessibility" invited designs to reflect a "barrier free environment." The design's stipulations were that the "symbol must be readily identifiable from a reasonable distance; must be self-descriptive, must be simple yet esthetically designed with no secondary meaning, and must be practical." Susanne Koefoed, a Danish graphic design student submitted the winning design, a simple motif of a stick figure using a wheelchair to indicate barrier-free access. The original design was modified by Karl Montan by "humanizing" it by adding a circle to the top of the seated figure, thus giving it a "head." Try getting around in a wheelchair without a head. The new symbol was formally adopted in 1969. While the design is copyrighted by the International Commission on Technology and Accessibility, its use is open to all as a gift to mankind. Its use has been widespread and widely adopted internationally. The symbol denotes the removal of environmental barriers, such as steps, to help older people, parents with baby carriages and people with disabilities other than mobility. Of particular interest is that because the "wheelchair symbol" is international, it is not accompanied by Braille in any particular language.

Several sentences ago I provided that one of the stipulations in the design was that the symbol must not reflect a "secondary meaning."

What were they thinking?

The symbol not only warranted a secondary meaning but required it.
At least that was the thought of Henry Resendez, Jr. the president of a private construction company in Fresno, CA.

Several weeks ago, as the Editor in Chief of Exceptional Parent Magazine, I received an unsolicited email from Henry. In his email he explained that he had redesigned the International Symbol of Access. Both the design and his story provided me with a rare and welcome "Aha moment."

Henry leMagazine is the "handicap symbol" or more appropriately "The Internatiot me know that he created the new design after his mother suffered a stroke and was left paralyzed and disabled. Their shared experience in navigating premises, including those with the "wheelchair sign" displayed, gave him the impetus that much was left out in the "ideogram."

The Symbol of Access is simply that, "access" is spoken here. It announces that you're welcome, we have taken your needs into our construction design, we can accommodate you here, you will be allowed here and you will be included. But Henry didn't see the symbol as saying, "We're here to help you, we're happy to provide any needed assistance and we care." The idea of "we care" transforms the message from "we're in compliance" to "we're here for you." Henry's design violates the original stipulation that the symbol should not reflect a "secondary message." It's clear to me that Henry's revised "symbol of access" is now a symbol of "care." And perhaps that "secondary message" should be the "primary message" for all of us.

I'm happy to say that the Orange Grove Center, the Chattanooga community agency where I have had the privilege of working for the last 18 years, has proudly placed Henry's new symbol on its front door, becoming the first agency to formally embrace this concept.

Exceptional Parent Magazine encourages its readers to promote the symbol in the hope it will become universally accepted and adopted and to continue to announce that "We Care."

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