Signs of the Times (repost)

For your holiday pleasures, here is a rambly blog post from a few years ago that Jeff wrote about semiotics and disability. Enjoy!


In earlier posts, I have spent my time discussing the disability rights movement and the work that has been done to help move people with disabilities out of the shadows and fight for inclusion in mainstream society. This time, I would like to take a slightly different approach and look at some of the symbols and language being used to define the disabled in our population. While the terms we use to discuss physical and cognitive limitation may seem innocuous at first glance, these powerful symbols hold deep connotative meanings that are constructing an inappropriate and widely negative discursive formation of disabled life.

To begin, let us consider the widely recognizable wheelchair logo. While this graphic is generally used to define wheelchair access or “handicap” parking, many have come to see this logo as being the universal sign for disability. Don’t believe me? A 2004 Stats Canada study discovered that over 50% of Canadians associate the phrase “disability” with wheelchair use. While this has the obvious problematic results of typecast all disability as being purely physical, there are some other connotative meanings that can be interpolated subconsciously from this logo. For instance, consider the construction of the logo. For simplicity, the wheelchair logo depicts a stick-figure sitting in a wheelchair. The first thing that is out-of-place is the positioning of the head. If you look closely at the logo, the person’s head is placed forward on the neck, giving the impression of either an elongated jaw or perhaps a down-turned head. Regardless of the intention, the resulting depiction shows an individual sitting in a wheelchair with head cast down, a symbol that is often associated with shame or depression.

Furthermore, notice how the wheelchair is also used to represent the stick-figure’s body. In essence, this merging of man and machine makes it difficult for the viewer to draw any distinction between the man and the chair, eliminating part of the individual’s humanity and constructing the disabled as a cyborg that is part organic and part machine. Ultimately, this steel and plastic construct constrains us; this metal frame embodies us, but even more that, it has become our body. It has becomes an inseparable part of us, and in the process, made it impossible for us to ever be like you.

While this may seem far-fetched, you may be astonished to know that one of the most common questions posed to me is whether I am able to leave my chair; most assume that I am forever connected to my chair, even some of my friends comment how weird it is to see me without my wheelchair when I’m sitting on the couch. While I do not mean to suggest that this symbol alone is promoting this misunderstanding to the public, it does help to reinforce a connection in the public’s mind that links disabled body and an intertwining with our adaptive devices.

Culture symbols are not the sole culprit for this inappropriate perception. One needs only consider the constantly changing phrases being used to define people with physical or cognitive limitations. What is interesting to note is that despite how often the politically correct terminology changes as the years pass, the perceptions have changed little. The current dictionary definition of “disabled” is “A disadvantage or deficiency, especially a physical or mental impairment that interferes with or prevents normal achievement in a particular area.” While the wording has changed, all terms about disablement focus on one very important theme; lack of ability and normalcy. Notice in the definition the reference to prevention of “normal achievement.” Furthermore, consider the prefix “dis” and its use in the English language. Predominantly, this prefix is used to signify absence, opposition, deprivation, and removal; disappointed, disenfranchised, discredited, disapproval, disheartened, etc. Even vernacular slang acknowledges this negative connotation, with the popularized term “to diss someone” being used to define a slanderous attack on someone’s personality or character. These connections cannot be ignored, especially when it is being used to define an entire population.

And there lies the problem; these symbols and words are dividing up the able-bodied populations (considered “normal”) from the disabled (the ambiguous “other”). As we obsessively categorize and segregate these populations, we are constructing linguistic walls between these two identical populations, drawing battle lines along physical and cognitive ability. This abilism must be stopped if we ever hope to live in an inclusive society that does not discriminate against people for their level of ability. Ultimately, Muscular Dystrophy is not my disability. My disability is a society that refuses to acknowledge that humans are constructed different; a society that demands conformity and subjugate anyone who does not fall into lock-step with the prescribed “ideal type.”

With government initiatives like the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and with the unspeakably generous support of people like yourself, the quality of life for people with disabilities has much improved over the past 20 years; however, now is not the time to stop working. As leaders and volunteers in our community, we are in a position to take to the streets and demand an end to the patronization and paternalism that largely dictates the treatment of people with disabilities in our community. It is the perceptions of disability that current exist that are resulting in many of the barriers currently facing people with disabilities. If the disabled were treated equally and fairly, do you think there would be any debate over the validity of universal access? Would people with disabilities be treated like welfare frauds every time they ask for their ODSP check? I know that now I am preaching to the converted, however, it is the duty of everyone reading this to become the beacons of hope for the hundreds of disabled youth and adults in our community. If you agree with this and believe that now is the time to change, then I urge you to do everything you can to empower and motivate our society to begin tearing down the linguistic and interpretive barriers that current segregate and marginalize the disabled populations. Now is the time for us to re-think disability by destroying the term entirely.

By Jeffrey Preston

Born with a rare neuromuscular myopathy, Jeff has spent his life dedicated to advocating for himself and others with disabilities. With a PhD in Media Studies from Western University, Jeff's research focuses on the representation of disability in popular and digital culture. Jeff is currently an Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at King's University College @ Western University in London, ON.