By Finn Bullers

Finn BullersA top official with the Department of Justice said this week that a proposed, more robust disability access symbol carries the same legal standing and meaning as the “stick-figure” sign now in use in parking lots across the nation.

That comes as big news to supporters of the new sign who for years have been working in stiff opposition to convince state and local governments, as well as the private sector, to adopt the more active, engaged disability symbol.

“I was absolutely thrilled to hear from DOJ that the use of the icon is permissible under the ADA,” said Kate Thurman, disability project coordinator with the Cambridge (Mass.) Commission for Persons with Disabilities.

Access SymbolThe sign hasn’t changed in 45 years, the year man first set foot on the moon. But since then, more active and civic-minded people with disabilities now use high-tech equipment such as power wheelchairs and body skeletons to explore the world.

Supporters of the new access symbol say today’s signs must keep pace with our more technological times and reflect a more active disability community eager to get jobs, pay taxes and engage in civic work.

But critics say the sign now in use is just fine and it would cost cities and states too much to replace them and would not be worth the effort.

The old icon, while a milestone in ADA history, displays passivity, supporters of the new sign say. It’s arms and legs are drawn like mechanical parts, its posture is unnaturally erect, and its entire look is one that make the chair, not the person, important and visible.

Sally Conway, deputy chief of the Department of Justice’s disability rights division, told those attending the Atlanta town hall question-and-answer session at the recent National ADA Symposium, that, yes, it is OK for cities and states to use the proposed new access symbol.

Under the landmark ADA law signed 25 years ago, there is a provision known as “equivalent facilitation.” That means that for a sign to be valid, it must be equal or greater in weight and significance to that which is provided by the ADA.

Federal and state officials have determined that slight variations to the historical International

Symbol of Accessibility (ISA) are generally permissible as long as the symbol clearly displays a wheelchair and signifies accessibility.

Rex Pace, senior accessibility specialist with the U.S. Access Board, agrees that the proposed new access symbol has a legitimate place in our national landscape.

But many cities across the nation — including five in Kansas and Kansas City, Mo. — are now skittish to adopt the new sign and install them for fear they will face stiff daily fines from the federal government for violating sign regulations.

That is not the case, said Pace, the access specialist with the U.S. Access Board, which oversees such matters.

At the town hall meeting, Pace held up a picture of today’s stick-figure icon. “Federal regs say you shall use this symbol,” he told the crowd. “So some communities are afraid to use the new accessible icon.”

John Wodatch, the retired director of the DOJ’s civil rights division, also acknowledged that the new access symbol is legal and that no state or local government should be fined by the federal government for adopting the new access symbol.

“It’s OK,” Woodatch said. “You just have to know that when someone confronts you with it, it is ‘equivalent facilitation’ and you are providing the same level of notice of accessible features” as does the stick-figure sign now in use.

A growing national chorus of people with disabilities is not content with the “rigid, stoic” and “disengaged” likeness that focus groups at Gordon College near Boston say represents the disability community unfavorably on today’s access signs in parking lots, elevators and public facilities.

The Accessible Icon Project, based near Boston, supports the slightly revised International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA) that many in the disability community perceive as “active, engaged” and “life affirming.” Even the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Treasury Department use the AIP symbol.

“We are simply asking government at all levels to — over time if necessary — adopt an access-sign replacement policy that installs the new signs as the old signs wear out,” said Finn Bullers, the Midwest coordinator for the Accessible Icon Project. “That’s the approach taken in New York where the symbol has been adopted. The cost there: $0.00.”

Now, Bullers said, it’s time to send the message that the AIP symbol provides “equivalent accessibility” as does the stoic ISA in use today.

“Unfortunately,” Bullers said. “We still are stuck with today’s stick-figure access signs that portrays this generation of wheelchair users as a mechanical function of old-school wheelchairs.”

Supporters of the new sign say that as long as stereotype represents people with disabilities on signs we see several times a day at the grocery store, library or shopping mall, the longer it will take to shatter the disability stereotypes of dependence, paternalism, condescension and helplessness.

For supporters, the new symbol is empowering, vibrant and vital — a sign that plants a subconscious truth with each exposure and begins to break down artificial barriers between people with disabilities and the able-bodied world in which we all live.

Symbolism matters, academics tell us. Repeated exposure to a powerful symbol subconsciously helps shatter negative disability stereotype.

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Reach Finn Bullers at or call 913-706-2894.

Disclaimer: This blog represents the opinions of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of United Spinal Association.