Wednesday, May 29, 2013

We waited 45 years for this?

I don't like it (left).

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). 


Actually, I saw a person moving to standing from his wheelchair, which to me showed that there are different types of disabilities. You know, the idea that someone using handicap parking could be in a wheelchair, or can stand from a chair, or only be able to walk short distances. Or even that, since the wheelchair isn't obvious, that a walker or stroller or other assistance device could be used.
That's why I thought it was a great new sign to use.

Now tilt the image 45 degrees to the left and tell me what you see...

I read all semiotics in an odd, idiosyncratic way, but to me this looks like a warning not to fall. Maybe I've seen too many stickers on tractors, cautioning about steep grades. And an icon of a woman urgently sprinting to the restroom would be... uh, discomfiting.

This sort of alteration of the iconic wheelchair logo has been around for quite some time. I have seen the so called action logo at quite a few universities and even a few ski resorts. I also find it ironic the new style logo is being used in NYC. Mayor Bloomberg has fought tooth and nail to insure the taxi of tomorrow is not accessible. Bloomberg's opposition to equal access in NYC and disability rights is well-known. Examples abound for discriminatory policies. When Sandy hit NYC for example most shelters were not accessible. Lives could have been lost.

Your criticisms of this logo are valid - they even echo my husband's - but here is why I still laud the switch.

Presenting people with disabilities as moving and active could very well contribute to dramatic changes in society's mindset. Currently, most of those who have no contact with people who are disabled presume them to be static, incompetent and passive.

A hyperbolic logo like this may be just what's needed to re-educate the prejudiced and uninformed. I blogged about this too (and about my profoundly disabled daughter) at