The Wheelchair Symbol and the Rhetoric of Understanding and Misunderstanding

A few of my students made an excellent point today while we were discussing the ADA and how it relates to college, privilege, identity and intersectionality, and so on. My students suggested, given that the wheelchair icon is such a wide-spread symbol that it functions as an (incorrect) symbol or stand-in of all disabilities.

For example, think of disabled parking spaces – more than those in a wheelchair or with some kind of physical difference are permitted to use disabled parking spaces.

Additionally, there are no other symbols that signify difference or disability.

More and more often, we are aware as a society that invisible disabilities or differences are just as important and more prevalent than those directly visible.

By not having some kind of new, more inclusive symbol, we continue to perpetuate the idea that only those in a wheelchair are actually disabled. Symbols matter.

As a society we should also place more emphasis on both our similarities and differences, per se. Similarities in that we all have more in common than we have not-in-common. Differences in that we’re all unique and as learning and research continues, more and more often we all have some kind of legitimate disability….or more simply…difference.