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How the Accessibility Emoji Got Its Start

From the streets to your iOS keyboard

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Apple recently unveiled a slew of new emoji that will be included in iOS 10, (some more woke than others). Brian Glenney, a philosophy professor at Norwich University and a graffiti artist, created one of these new icons with Olin College design professor Sara Hendren. In 2011, they introduced a new design for the symbol for accessibility, and started to promote the icon with a sticker campaign. The goal was to spark a conversation about how people with disabilities are perceived and how the images used to represent them affect that perception. Glenney and a handful of volunteers, mostly undergraduate students, planted stickers on laptops, stop signs, and sidewalks all around Greater Boston. The idea was to introduce a new symbol for what’s commonly referred to as the “handicap” icon. The new design is more active, putting more emphasis on the person than the wheelchair.

The sticker campaign worked, drawing enough positive attention that the design evolved from a sticker into the Accessible Icon Project. In 2013, the group signed its trademark rights over to Triangle, a nonprofit that seeks to empower the disabled community in New England, essentially handing over authority to the very people the icon would potentially speak for. That same year, New York City adopted the symbol to replace the long-standing International Symbol of Access, as Hendren and Glenney had hoped would happen. The team behind the project started to get more momentum and attention from major media outlets. The coverage caught the eye of Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art’s senior curator of the department of architecture and design. “Paola Antonelli saw our story in Fast Co.Design and felt that the design was significant enough to warrant inclusion into the museum’s private collection,” Glenney said. “So we sent several signs from our sticker campaign, a stencil, and sent along a digital copy of the icon,” and it was eventually featured in an exhibition. Recently, it’s been adopted by the state of Connecticut and the Los Angeles Department on Disability.

In June at WWDC, Apple announced it would be using the icon. However, Apple was only speaking about using the design as an app icon for a native Apple Watch app; Glenney misinterpreted this, believing that the company was going to incorporate the symbol into its emoji keyboard available on every iOS product. Happily, his mistake became true on August 1, and Apple officially introduced his design to its emoji set. “I like to think they assigned it to [the rest of] iOS 10 to make my tweet right,” Glenney says, laughing.

Glenney and his team didn’t use traditional means to get their icon into the emoji set. “A lot of people told us to go through the [International Organization for Standardization],” he says. The ISO is responsible for legitimizing and establishing different “real world” standards internationally, and it has a number of committees dedicated to symbols, including committees that decide on “safety identification, signs, shapes, symbols and colours” and “public information symbols,” which, presumably, the icon would have had to go through if it wanted to be officially standardized. Glenney did say that there was an additional hurdle. “[The ISO] doesn’t really like our design.” Despite eschewing this path and choosing a grassroots sticker campaign, the icon found legitimacy. “[Apple using the icon] shows you the symbol is a success … the public decides what represents them.”

And now, the fact that it’s made its way to the iOS keyboard is an arguably bigger victory. Emoji communication is on an unstoppable rise, and this keyboard is becoming a constant stop for users; this is the icon’s biggest audience yet. It will be seen and used by innumerable people, a realization of Glenney and Hendren’s vision. It’s by no means the end of their journey — just an affirmation that the conversation will continue.

As the icon stakes its claim on city signs and in our emoji keyboards, the designers hope the symbol will also start to change the way we talk and think about disability. “The best part of the project is you never know who is going to do the next thing with it,” Glenney says. To Glenney and the folks over at the Accessible Icon Project, seeing the icon in public and in emoji conversations “gives it new life.” He points to the work of Mike Mort, an activist and artist who has made a number of superhero portraits based off of the icon.

But Glenney thinks the emoji and the icon in general is just one piece of the puzzle. “[The project] gained ground when the disenfranchised had control,” he says. “I want this to be a new path and blueprint for advocacy.”