Kayla O’Mahony 2018 spent her final year at Maynard High School in Maynard, Mass., working on a senior project focused on changing society’s view on disabilities. For part of her project, Kayla converted the original handicapped signs in her town to the new accessible icon. Next up? The Ursinus campus.
O’Mahony, who is currently undecided on a major but is interested in neuroscience and art, was first fascinated in understanding differences as a child, when her mom read her the book All Kinds of Minds. The book depicts the lives of children with various disabilities and what their day-to-day life was like going to school.
“I think that All Kinds of Minds had a significant and subliminal impact on my mind and how I perceived differences,” O’Mahony said.
O’Mahony had grown up close with her cousin Jae, who falls on the autism spectrum. As a freshman in high school, O’Mahony became a member of her school’s chapter of Best Buddies, and international organization that provides one-on-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
When it came time for her senior project, she began by writing an extensive research paper exploring society’s perspective on disabilities. O’Mahony had a few components to her project. She created a program manual that tied lesson plans to books, games, activities, etc. to teach compassion and acceptance of differences to kids of the elementary school level. O’Mahony also paired with a friend on the autism spectrum to run workshops at their school on what it’s like to be a teen with autism. But when O’Mahony’s grandfather told her about an article he saw in the Boston Globe about the Accessible Icon Project, O’Mahony knew this was the final step to her project.
The Accessible Icon Project was started in 2009 by Sara Hendren, an artist, writer, and assistant professor of design at Olin College in Needham, Mass., who has a son with Down Syndrome, and Brian Glenney, an assistant professor of philosophy at Gordon College. The Project provides supplies and services to transform the old handicap symbol with the new one.
O’Mahony, with support from her school, town, and family, converted the logos on Maynard’s municipal and school handicapped parking spaces to the more progressive symbol. The new symbol is slanted forward, representing active motion, and emphasizing ability over disability. The Department of Public Works crew finished painting the logos on parking spots on August 28 — eight days after O’Mahony left for Ursinus.
“I hope these new signs make people curious about how they think about people with different social or physical abilities,” O’Mahony explains. “This goal of this movement isn’t to enforce political correctness, it’s about shifting societies perspective and encouraging us to look at what people what people have to offer.”
Now at Ursinus, O’Mahony has joined the college’s chapter of Best Buddies. She is hoping, with the help of the group, to eventually convert all the handicap signs on campus.
“I haven’t spoken to anybody about my ideas yet,” she says, “but I hope to do so in the next couple months. It isn’t as fun doing a project like this solo. I find it more rewarding when you can reflect together as a community on what you have accomplished.”
The Ursinus Best Buddies chapter pairs individuals with a disability with a college student. The college students have weekly contact (by phone, email, or mail) and meet twice a month with their buddies, as well as enjoy group events together.