I was excited when I saw a story about a new icon for accessible parking, bathrooms or entry ramps that's been adopted by New York City.
Everyone recognizes the old "handicapped" sign: a blue-and-white stick figure sitting in a wheelchair, hands on arm rests, circa 1968.
I was expecting a new image to convey the word "disability" or "access," something completely out of the box and modern and edgy that would convey difference, adaptation and interdependence in a unique and unconventional way.
I was expecting an entirely new creative concept.
Instead, I see that a "team of academics" at Gordon College in eastern Massachusetts has modified the 45-year-old sign by moving the formerly upright figure forward into a 45-degree-angle posture with arms raised behind the wheels, indicating he's propelling himself.
What's most striking is that this extreme "lean forward" isn't representative of how most manual wheelchair users wheel. It depicts a wheelchair racer.
In other words, we've moved from the image of a person who appears to be waiting to be pushed, to an image of an elite athlete racing at top speed.
Is that progress?
Can you imagine updating all of our signs for women's washrooms with an image of a 100-metre sprinter? Would this allow most women to see themselves in this icon?
As so often occurs, the person with a disability is depicted as either a superhero (the wheelchair racer) or a tragic victim (unable to move independently).
What about all the people with disabilities who use power chairs, or who (God forbid) ARE pushed in their wheelchair?
They're still moving, right?
In a related story in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Victor Calise, commissioner of the New York Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, says that the old sign suggests something "stagnant...there's no movement, and it makes people seem like they don't do much with their lives."
If you aren't an elite athlete, you're not doing something with your life?
I don't like the old sign and I don't like stick figures. But turning that static stick figure into a wheelchair racer doesn't create a symbol of access that will open mainstream minds to the needs and rights of all people with disabilities, including those who rely on others to get around (and they, too, want to "do" something with their lives).