Diffability icon mooted

The BBC recently asked as part of their “Ouch” Facebook presence, whether I thought the disabled badge or icon, the ‘classic’ one of a stick person in a wheelchair needed updating and whether I thought it represented me as a disabled person.

They pointed to a campaign in the States where transparent stickers showing a more dynamic stick person had been superimposed on the traditional one. The new design depicts a more dynamic paralympian style stick person, leaning forward with arms in the slipstream. The image implies dynamism, rather than someone who might get in the way or need pushing about. On the face of it, it’s very worthy and challenges stereotypes, I suppose.wheelchair icon

I think the whole thing started as an art project. I’m not sure if the artist is disabled or not.

But does an icon of someone in a wheelchair (whether new or old) represent me and the majority of disabled people?

I guess the problem lies in that the vast majority of diabled people have an invisible disability or don’t even consider themselves disabled.

I work for a large public sector organisation. This is an organisation that prides itself on its inclusivity towards minority groups. I sometimes attend the disabled workers group meetings, and I can do it within work time, which is great.

If there’s going to be a relatively high proportion of people in employment with an organisation who have a disability, it’s going to be here.

There’s about 2,000 people working in the HQ. I’m in quite a unique position as I’ve moved about all over the building in the nine years I’ve worked here, so there’s pretty much nowhere I haven’t been to and no-one I haven’t seen.

There’s only a handful of people with visible disabilities here ranging from a woman with a guide dog to a bloke with cerebral palsy.

I’ve racked my brains, but I’m only aware of two people in wheelchairs… it’s an unscientific research method, but it’s safe to say that visible disabilities are just the tip of the disability iceberg here. It means that approximately 0.001% of the HQ workforce use wheelchairs.

Reinforcing this: when I attend the disabled workers group, the majority of people there have hearing or (not obvious) sight problems (both of which have their own icons, of course). I don’t even know what some of the disabilities are among my fellow attendees. It’s fair to say that until someone uses sign language to communicate, none of them are visibly disabled. Of my immediate team mates of which there are about 30, I know of seven with a disability ranging from MS to epilepsy and cancer.

Delving into some stats available on the work intranet, out of 15,000 employees, nearly 500 identify themselves as disabled – approximately 3% of the workforce. A far higher percentage than the (admittedly unscientific) handful of people I can recall with a visible disability working in the HQ and the 0.001% of people using wheelchairs.

Remember – that’s people who identify themselves as having a disability. As the Equality Act includes people with HIV, MS and (here’s the big one) anyone who has ever had cancer, as disabled, I suspect that 3% could go a lot higher.

Going back to the original questions, I would support an updating of the stick person in a wheelchair. If anything, the original symbol helped prevent me from thinking of myself as disabled in the first place. When I see it in a parking bay I subconsciously think of my 1970s childhood and those crap blue ‘invalid carriages’ Similarly, the revamped one equally doesn’t speak to me as I’m not David Weir.

But what should we choose as the symbol for disability? I guess the wheelchair symbol was initially chosen as it represents someone who might need the maximum space and maneuverability in society. The most extreme example of someone needing ramps, automatic doors, elevators and other hardware.

Most of the replies on the Facebook post were in favour of maintaining the status quo for the reason that it’s an image that is instantly recognisable worldwide. “Why fix it if it ain’t broken?” was mentioned a couple of times.

It could be argued that it is broken: a lot of online MS message boards and publications in the UK frequently mention disabled parking bays as a sticking point. Many people with MS have issues with mobility that don’t necessitate the use of a wheelchair, for instance.

There’s many stories of people who have had to explain their predicament in the supermarket car park to well meaning but misguided members of the public. Similarly, when I went to the Paralympics in London (the irony!), I by-passed a large toilet queue to nip in to the disabled ones, rehearsing a little speech about MS and urge incontinence while I was in there. No-one dared mention anything to me when I came out luckily, but they easily could’ve done.

I suppose if anything approaching the new design were to be adopted, it’s a step in the right direction. I may not be David Weir, but in many ways I wish I was, I wish I had some of his different abilities. A new design would hopefully no longer scream disability but diffability.

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