Lame Symbology

I feel like Peter Griffin when I say that the Accessible Icon Project really grinds my gears. Of course, I actually do have gears, riding around in a wheelchair and all…

So what is this Project of which I whine? If you are not a hermit – and maybe even you are – you should recognize the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA). MUTCD_D9-6.svg.pngMost commonly, this symbol isused to mark handicapped parking spaces, but it also indicates the presence of other accessible design features for people with disabilities. It features a stick figure sitting on a wheel. Pretty standard… It does the job, and has been doing it for nearly 50 years!

If it ain’t broke, I say, don’t fix it. After all, people with disabilities have enough things to worry about. Is a symbol really worth launching an entire movement?

Apparently Sara Hendren and Brian Glenney think so. In 2009, the two began graffiti-ing ISA symbols in New York City. The new design purports to show people withaccessible-icon.jpg disabilities as more than mere stick figures, but rather active, engaged participants in community life. The Accessible Icon Project was born, and some disability activists began stickering or lobbying campaigns of their own to get the new symbol more widely adopted.

At this point, I imagine you might be wondering why someone who purports to be a disability activist herself would be irritated by the new depiction of accessibility. Because the new symbol prioritizes physical activism. The new symbol is still a disabled stick figure in a wheelchair. The difference is that the stick figure is now pushing itself in a manual wheelchair.

Certainly, the visual alteration is minor. But the message is not. To argue that the new symbol is “better” than the ISA is to determine that having the ability to physically steer oneself is better than alternate means of direction. People with disabilities should be concerned about philosophical and actual self-direction – which still have not been achieved by far too many – not physical propulsion. Essentially, the new symbol is ableist.

I had not thought about the new symbol until I spent the weekend in New York. I was visiting Siena CollegeIMG_0255.jpg and happened to park in a space marked with it. I had forgotten that New York became the first state to require that the ISA be replaced with the new symbol. As a person with a disability, legislation like that frustrates me even more. Instead of mandating that people with disabilities should have equal access to home and community-based services, legislators are wasting time paying lip service to politically correct iconography. (And people wonder why Trump is doing so well in the polls!)

Moreover, I don’t think it’s fair to ask businesses to replace the existing universal symbol of accessibility in favor of the latest fad. It costs money. While I do believe that businesses have an obligation – morally, in addition to legally – to make reasonable accommodations for customers, I think it is short-sighted to ask them to pay for alterations that make no substantive difference to disabled people. If business owners are passed off, I don’t blame. But I do worry that they won’t be as receptive in the future to civil rights legislation that actually does make a difference.


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