Kayla O’Mahony graduated from Maynard High in June, but still has not seen the full fruits of her senior project.
Over the last eight months, the 18-year-old spent many hours on a project to convert the logo for signs marking Maynard’s municipal and school handicapped parking spaces to a more progressive one created by the Accessible Icon Project.
She left Aug. 20 for Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., and a Department of Public Works crew finished painting the new logo on 15 municipal handicapped spaces last Thursday. The new symbol is similar to the more familiar one in use since 1968, but is slanted forward to represent active motion, emphasizing the person over the wheelchair.
She will be home at Thanksgiving, O’Mahony said by phone recently, “so hopefully I’ll see it then. I’m really excited about it. I saw the pictures, and my family will probably go down and take pictures for me and send them or will FaceTime with me so I can see them live.”
Thanks to her volunteer time with Best Buddies, a nonprofit that creates opportunities for interactions between mainstream students and youths with intellectual and development disabilities, O’Mahony said, she knew she wanted her senior project to be about how people with disabilities are perceived in society. But the project’s focus did not take shape until O’Mahony’s grandfather sent her a Boston Globe story in December about the Accessible Icon Project.
Hatched as a public art initiative to create dialogue around disability and accessibility, the Accessible Icon Project was never intended to be a global movement. But it has become just that, with organizations from town governments to NFL teams adopting the logo. The Museum of Modern Art has even accepted the logo into its permanent collection.
“I read it, and I was so amazed,” O’Mahony said of the Globe story. “It felt like a perfect fit with my paper and what I wanted to do for a project. . . I want people to look back and question and do the same thing I did: ‘What ideas has that old symbol put in our heads? And what does the new symbol do for me?’ My goal in doing this was so people could become curious, educate themselves, and then have a new perspective on disability in our society.”
The Accessible Icon Project was started in 2009 by Sara Hendren, an artist, writer, and assistant professor of design at Olin College in Needham, and Brian Glenney, an assistant professor of philosophy at Gordon College. Hendren has a son with Down syndrome.
Glenney said individuals like O’Mahony have been inspired to bring the Accessible Icon Project to cities and towns across the country. He said they are the reason the project has turned into a movement.
He and Hendren “have been amazed to witness grass-roots individuals act up and sponsor the icon in their local municipalities,” Glenney said via e-mail. “This is not a movement of some organization or political body, but a movement of individual people who are inspired by the possibilities that an active and embodied accessible icon might have on how people with disabilities might be viewed and treated in society.”
After reading the article, O’Mahony met with Maynard’s town administrator, Kevin Sweet, in February, and presented her project to the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee in May.
“This is a feel-good story for us, and it’s taking advantage of someone willing to volunteer and give back to the community,” Assistant Town Administrator Andrew Scribner-MacLean said by phone last week. “We are happy to have the new icon, because we like it and we are glad it got done by someone in the community.”
For her project, O’Mahony also created a manual to explain the concepts of difference and disability to elementary school students in town, which she has helped to implement. She also gave presentations at Maynard High in collaboration with friend, classmate, and Best Buddies partner Joseph Berry, who is on the autism spectrum.
Family friend Alan Rogers, who owns Tint-a-Glass in Maynard, printed the icon on a large piece of paper so O’Mahony could trace the logo onto a large piece of plywood. Her uncle, Wally Manion, who owns WJM Carpentry, cut out the plywood stencils for use by town crews painting the logo onto the parking spots.
O’Mahony paid $85 out of her pocket for 10 stickers with the new logo that were posted on nine handicapped-parking signs at the high school (the plywood stencil was not used on the high school spaces). The one remaining sticker hangs above O’Mahony’s desk in her dormitory room.
“It’s kind of incredible, because it’s been eight months of work and it’s finally done,” she said. “It’s odd. I feel like it’s still lingering over me. I’m hoping maybe eventually to bring it to the Ursinus College campus.”