As I was getting out of my van in the parking lot of an area store, this older woman with white hair pulled into the accessible parking space next to mine. I sat on the lift waiting for her to get out of her car and lock the door. She had a placard on the dash. Suddenly, as she was making sure she had her keys, a man walking by stopped, took one look at me, and addressed her somewhat demonstratively, saying, “You can’t park there!” He pointed at the sign and then at me. “That space is for people who use wheelchairs. You can’t park there.” This guy, it seemed, was trying to advocate for me.
I looked at the woman. She was turning toward him. She was also turning red. I felt I needed to do something. I felt a need to advocate for her, and to help this wannabe good samaritan to understand that not all people with disabilities use wheelchairs. I wanted to tell him how important it is to first look for the placard or plate. I never got the chance.
The woman put her keys in her purse, slammed the car door, took one step toward the gentleman and advocated quite loudly for herself. “Listen, bucko,” she said, “I’ve had two heart attacks and five bypass surgeries in the last three years. I can park here!”
I thought to myself “Geez, lady, don’t have another one.” With a look that dared him to rebut, she walked briskly by the dumbstruck pedestrian and into the store.I spent about five minutes practically counseling the poor guy. He’d only come to buy nails. He thought he was doing the right thing. I told him about hidden disabilities, of being denied legitimacy as one who’s “really disabled” by an exclusionary symbol which does more to perpetuate misconceptions than to empower and unite a culture. He walked away somewhat enlightened but mumbling something to the effect of, “never again …”
Yeah. Even though I’m a wheelchair user, I have a problem with the access symbol. It disenfranchises many of my friends who live with disabilities but who don’t use chairs. It is a major cause of grief. To an uninformed public, the access symbol by its very design equates disability with wheelchairs and relegates folks like the woman above, those with less obvious disabilities, to always having to prove themselves as worthy of accommodation. The symbol also implies, to those who do not know us, that those of us who do use chairs tend stay in our chairs, confined or bound to them.
We, as advocates and activists, rally around the symbol because it has been around for a long time, because it is recognized, because it is all that we have. With so few members of our disability culture using wheelchairs–ten percent, maybe less–why do we keep it around?
So, let’s see … 90% of 55 million Americans (let alone 11% of the rest of the world) … we’re talking about 49.5 million people for whom the design is not really representative. So what can we do about it? How do we find a symbol that truly represents the expanse of disability culture? How do we incorporate into a design chair users, cane users, dog users, sign language users, people with hidden disabilities, brain injuries, cognitive and developmental disabilities? How about folks with mental illnesses? The list is long and as individual as there are people living with one.It seems to me the only way to not alienate anyone is to get away from a design that speaks to a certain disability or body type, like the current access symbol. We may have to abandon any type of representation of a human form. This is not to be misconstrued as eliminating the “person” or the humanity from disability; only to refocus attention.
Every time I have ever been involved in an access or accommodation dispute, the focus has always been on me, or the person with the disability in question. We, folks with disabilities, are always seen as the troublemakers, as the “problem.” All we want is an equal shot at what our community has to offer: Accessibility, Accommodation, Equity, Respect, a chance to contribute; to feel and know that we belong. Nothing more, nothing less. A new symbol–one to be placed on signs in parking lots, on or beside doors to public buildings, restrooms, paths of travel, next to mission statements and on telephones–should focus attention on the real barrier to full inclusion: on the attitudes of those controlling the spaces; on those providing the access.
So lets trash the wheelchair symbol, keep the same blue field and throw a big bold capital “A” in the middle. Keep it white for continuity. Why an “A”? A for Accessible. A for Accommodating. A for All. A for Aw heck, you too. The “A” doesn’t just focus on architectural access but on attitudinal access. If you, as a store owner, as a city park, as an airline or hotel, have it on your door, you’ve earned it. You’ve also earned our respect and our business. No small potatoes when you consider the respect and buying power of not only 55 million folks with existing disabilities, but the 70 million baby boomers hitting fifty. That’s a lot of latent disability.
Face it. We get older, and when we do, disability often happens. Think about the 37 million or so AARP members.
Laws aside, providing real access and accommodation is the right thing to do, but if that’s not enough, for no other reason, it makes good business sense.
No confusion. No misrepresentation. No explanation or proof necessary. A symbol we ALL can rally around.
Daniel D. Wilkins is President and Owner of The Nth Degree, a very progressive nationwide Graphic Design/Silk Screen/Professional Speaking Company specializing in Products, Designs and Stories for the Interdependent Living, Inclusion, Diversity and Disability Rights Movement. Dan’s creative work and professional speaking has been done with hospitals, Independent Living Centers (ILC’s), nursing homes, private allied health professional organizations, Rehabilitation Centers, Schools and more.