Annie designed the Wheelchair Heart symbol and had it tattooed on her shoulder. Today it's the symbol of the Day of Acceptance.

Annie designed the Wheelchair Heart symbol and had it tattooed on her shoulder. Today it’s the symbol of the Day of Acceptance.

I was a bit mystified recently when I bumped into the International Day of Acceptance, which this year was Jan. 20. I’d never heard of it before (it began in 2010), and wondered how one day could possibly do any good for a disability community that fights for acceptance on every level, from personal to political, every single day of the year. Being the cynical Type-A post-polio that I am, a Day of Acceptance also felt just a bit patronizing.

But the story behind it is empowering. In 2007, Annie Hopkins recruited her brother, Stevie, to help her start a company — 3E Love — to spread her message of social acceptance, that everyone should embrace diversity, empower each other and, most of all, love life. She designed her “Wheelchair Heart” as a symbol that people with disabilities accept their challenges and embrace them. By replacing the wheel with a heart, the stigma of the wheelchair is also removed, the 3E Love web site explains, and it can be a symbol for people with any disability or impairment. It represents the person, not society’s perception of him or her.

Annie and her brother, both wheelchair users due to spinal muscular atrophy Type 2, started to promote the symbol and their social model of disability on T-shirts. Today the company has sold tens of thousands of products — T-shirts, key chains, lanyards, decals, etc. — to customers in all 50 states and more than 20 countries. (You may have seen the 3E Love booth at various Abilities Expos.)

In January of 2009, Annie went into the hospital for a simple procedure but complications led to infection and her death at the age of 24. Her brother decided that growing their business and spreading their social message beyond their Chicago community, would be the best way to honor Annie’s memory. So he relied on his experience in marketing, music apparel sales and Internet social networking, and now the company sells dozens of products, controls production and distribution from start to finish, customizes products for fundraising groups and a variety of events.

One of Annie’s greatest fears, according to the 3E Love site, “was that the meaning of our symbol would be related to charity, or the quest for a cure. It is, of course, a result of ignorance when people see our symbol and automatically ask ‘Where do I donate?’ — that’s an ignorance we hope to change. And it’s also the reason we attached it to a business, entrepreneurship, and products. It’s a flat-out statement if 3E Love is successful from a business perspective that people with disabilities can achieve things without a handout.”

Obviously, Annie and Stevie Hopkins’ message extends far beyond the one Day of Acceptance, which I missed this year. Thankfully, it’s grown into a full-fledged movement intent on opening eyes and attitudes everywhere.