I'm sure you've seen the hubbub about New York City's new symbol for international access. In case you haven't, in a nutshell, the fabled white stick figure sitting at perfect right angles while free-floating on a butt circle has a new, “progressive”, yes the press loves that word, descendant. Wait for it… a black stick figure free-floating on a butt circle, leaning slightly forward. I know the progressive spirit of our stick figure friend’s daring departure with his (her?) backrest will surely stimulate meaningful conversation about ableism in America and cause the ignorant to change their narrow thinking patterns, right?
Well not to burst your bubble, or pop your tire, shall we say, but I am not convinced. Forward leaning stick figure man has not yet enchanted me. Proponents have said that the new design is more “humanized” and dispels the myth that disabled people are passive dependents. This method is a very good one to dispel, but I don't think the former symbol branded me as passive, because let's be honest, my lack of passivity is perhaps most obvious when I talk. Otherwise, I dare say I sit quite like stick figure 1.0, maybe with slightly greater a slouch. If Mr. stick figure had tape over his mouth, then we could make a stink about assumptions. The new design makes all wheelchair users look like they are speeding along, zippy, and of course, athletic. Seeing as most people will give the sign five seconds of analysis, I think most members of the general public may not even notice the difference, or if they do, it will perpetuate the media love affair with the sporty crip, because people in wheelchairs sitting rigidly while doing homework and eating five hundred pretzels like every other college student in America are so opposite of interesting. Cute, maybe, but nothing more. While the intentions are great, most people not already invested in the disability rights movement are not going to unlearn their prejudices, or even think about them, because that guy on the parking sign decided to stretch a little. In fact, if in order to be an “active” disabled person, you must push your own chair, then I have failed miserably. If we're going to get picky, some people are not able to lean forward, and still they are active citizens. What if, analyzers of the world, Mr. stick had a spinal fusion? To those of you who are about to call the mayor to make room for this possibility, that was a joke. What I'm trying to get at is no, the old symbol isn't perfect, but in a time where the budget is tight, the issues are many, and people’s needs are real, is redesigning a stick figure really the best way to spend our money? If we want to do something for people with disabilities, we need to spend our time and energy, and yes, our government money, on things that really matter. If New York City, or any other place where the matter, wants to make life better for us, elected officials and ordinary people should stop smiling about stick figure 2.0 for a minute and realize that America's largest minority has bigger fish to fry. If this much excitement and praise were generated in the media about accessible housing, affordable personal care services, better medical coverage, I would be on cloud nine. The disabled employment rate is less than forty percent. Discrimination in schools, housing, and workplaces is rampant. If our cities across the country really wanted to wage war on ableism, the money spent “improving” the access sign would be used to address these injustices. The truth is that while people are spending money to make the stick figure look more humanized, real people with disabilities are being dehumanized, because the money for services they need can't seem to be found by those in power. People who are ignorant about disabilities are not going to say “wow! The stereotypes I relied on about people with disabilities were so wrong!” by looking at a new parking sign. That has to happen through education, and public pressure to fund projects that give people the disabilities a more meaningful place in society. If the press dedicated as much attention to our needs as they did to our stick figure, we would be living in a much more accommodating world. The average Joe who even notices the change in symbol will probably have the following epiphany. “I knew that one looked different! Somebody slit the tire!” So friends, not to dampen the excitement, but stick figure 1.0 and I are still tight. I can’t abandon a guy that graced the side of my short bus for years just because he’s a little rigid, can I? On an entirely separate note, both symbols insinuate that all disabled people are in wheelchairs, which is far from true. If we really want to be inclusive, let’s come up with something that encompasses all disabilities. But for now, with bigger disability rights issues on the horizon, I’d like to start a conversation about something else. And to the accessible taxi bearing the new “progressive image”, perhaps we should work on your ability to be located before we worry about what you look like…
See the news article here.
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