Should Britain look at introducing a more dynamic wheelchair sign?

The global symbol for disability – a straight-backed stick person in a wheelchair – is to be changed. James Moore assesses the new design

It’s the symbol for disability known the world over - the blue sign featuring a straight backed figure in a stylised wheelchair. New York State is now just one step away from banning it. Lawmakers there want to see it replaced with a more “dynamic” version, featuring a wheelchair in motion.

The term “handicapped” - widely considered to be derogatory and mercifully less common on this side of the Atlantic than in the US - would also be removed. However, the law will only apply to signs installed after its implementation, always assuming it gets passed by the Governor, Andrew Cuomo, following its approval by a Democrat controlled Assembly and now the Republican led senate.

But should Britain look at introducing a more dynamic wheelchair sign? Having a mobility impairment as a result of a cycling accident, my first reaction to the new sign was very positive. For me, the narrative it displays is more positive, and less passive, than the existing sign and it therefore challenges lazy perceptions of the disabled held by the able bodied.

It is a view broadly shared by Liz Sayce, the chief executive of Disability Rights UK, although she has an important qualification to add: “There are more than 11 million people classified as living with a disability of some sort in the UK, but the vast majority are not wheelchair users. The chase is still on for a sign that can capture a range of disabilities.”

That is an issue picked up by the writer Selina Mills, who is legally blind and whose book ,“The Life Unseen - The Story of Blindness” , comes out next year. Mills, too, likes the idea of a sign featuring a figure that is not static, but says that there is a widespread, and unhelpful, perception that you must need a wheelchair if you have an impairment, perhaps encouraged by the universal use of the blue wheelchair sign.

“I just came back from Chicago Airport where they weren’t prepared to give me any assistance unless I was prepared to go in a chair,” she says. “That’s something you come across a lot in airports. It’s like I’m a liability if I happen to be walking around with a disability. I have to be contained.”

Mills, however, does point out that there are increasingly signs available to depict impairments to functions other than mobility, such as the eye symbol for blind people, and an ear for the hearing impaired. The eye symbol itself is a more inclusive replacement for the sign featuring a male figure with a cane, or a dog, that was its predecessor.

The dynamic wheelchair does not, however, find favour with everyone. Ricky Cahill, a team mate of mine from the Frenford Falcons Wheelchair Basketball Club, thinks replacing the existing symbol is a waste of time. “I can’t see why you’d want to change it,” he says. “The old one works fine, everyone knows it and what it means. It’s purely a symbol. Leave it as it is. If it’s changed everyone will have an opinion on what it should be now and you’ll never find a middle ground. It’s just not possible.”

John Thornton, an activist with Transport for All, which campaigns for accessible transport, designed his own “dynamic” chair, which featured on a map of disability-friendly Tube stations (there weren’t many) that he produced to put pressure on Transport For London during the 2012 Paralympics. He tried to make his figure less male, and later found that a Canadian designer had come up with a similar idea.

But Thornton, too, has misgivings about a wholesale move towards a dynamic chair sign. He points out that not all wheelchair users can self propel their chairs. The new sign, he argues, could be seen as weighted to the more active people at the top of “the hierarchy of disability”. “There are some good arguments not to adopt the dynamic wheelchair symbol,” he says. “And, anyway, it’s meaningless unless it is backed up by positive attitudes towards disabled people.”

Nonetheless, it looks as if those visiting New York State over the coming years will get the chance to see the new sign in action, and make their own minds up. On balance, I still favour it. But Thornton’s point about attitudes is extremely well made.

ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

    £13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

    £18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

    Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

    £20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power