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Designing a symbol for disability

A new set of emoji for 2019 includes people with wheelchairs, canes, and hearing aids, but are these designs as accurate as they could be?

Last week, the Unicode Consortium announced the approval of 59 new emoji (230 when counting all gender variations and skin tones) for 2019, including symbols representing a yawning face, a falafel, an otter, and ballet shoes, as well as interracial and gender-inclusive couples. Another prominent theme? Emoji of disabled people.

These disability-related emoji, including people in manual and motorized wheelchairs, people walking with probing canes, guide dogs, an ear with a hearing aid, and a mechanical arm and leg, were suggested by Apple in a proposal submitted to the Unicode Consortium last March.

Developed by Apple in concert with organizations like the National Association of the Deaf, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and the American Council of the Blind, the emoji are intended to represent four disability communities as identified by the tech company: blind and low vision, deaf and hard of hearing, physical motor, and hidden disabilities.

While some disabled people have expressed their approval of the emoji, others are skeptical, even offering up revisions of the designs. As reactions to these new emoji continue to pour in, one can’t help but ask: How do you design a symbol for disability?

All the new emoji approved for 2019.
All the new emoji approved for 2019.

The first emoji set was released in 1997, so the disability-inclusive emoji are a long time coming. “It’s baffling when you look at things that have been accepted [before disability-related emoji],” says Elizabeth Guffey, author of Designing Disability: Symbols, Space, and Society and professor of art history at SUNY Purchase, like “a waffle with a pat of butter on it” or a water polo player.

Before the 2019 update, wheelchair users have made do with a version of the International Symbol of Access, or ISA, which shows a white stick figure in a manual wheelchair. The version found in the emoji decks of Google and Samsung, among others, is the original, more upright ISA, while the version on the Apple, Microsoft, and Twitter platforms shows a wheelchair user leaning forward with their arms behind them, as though in motion.

“That thing [the original ISA] is 50 years old,” says Guffey. “It was a very weak, feeble compromise: What happened was a wheelchair was drawn, originally, to be the symbol, but it was thought to be too inhuman. A committee of people—none of them designers—came together and they just plopped a circle on top of it. So it’s very static, rigid; it doesn’t look like a human being, it looks like a wheelchair.”

The efforts of a grassroots organization, the Accessible Icon Project, led to the creation of the more dynamic ISA that inspired the version in the Apple and Microsoft emoji sets. In 2011, artist Sara Hendren and philosopher Brian Glenney began placing transparent stickers over the ISA on signs around Boston, transposing a new figure onto the rigid original icon. The person depicted in the transformed icon had their feet farther back, arms bent behind the wheel, and head extending forward. It was “a re-editing of the city, in many ways,” says Guffey.

What started as a street-art project became the legal ISA for New York and Connecticut. “It was intended as a kind of radical statement,” Guffey says. “The very oddity of it is people started taking it seriously as a new symbol, and it’s such a weird life that it’s lived, that it’s become a kind of legal symbol.”

The ISA’s function in public spaces is undeniable—even the original, more static version. “It has a kind of power to it,” says Guffey, “a kind of graphic communicability, but the problem is that most people who are disabled don’t look anything like that.”

The new emoji offer a set of symbols for disability that reflect a wider range of disabled people, but there are still notable omissions. Both Guffey and Cherry Thompson, an accessibility consultant who works with video-game developers, mentioned the lack of crutches, canes, and other walking aids.

The design of the emoji themselves also leaves more to be desired. “The emoji of the [manual] wheelchair, which is the one I know the most about because I use a wheelchair, is really inaccurate,” Thompson says. “A lot of it has to do with the type of the wheelchair: It seems based on old-fashioned hospital wheelchairs, or temporary wheelchairs that are made of steel [rather than lighter materials such as titanium or aluminum]. The vast majority of people who use wheelchairs don’t use them anymore.”

The push handles and the foot rests are also “weirdly high,” they say. “You can’t sit like that in a wheelchair and use it yourself; you have to have someone push you around—and no one likes to be pushed places if they don’t have to be.” The push handles could even be left out entirely, says Thompson.

The stiff 90-degree angle and the height of the seated person, Thompson says, is another problem: “In order to push efficiently, you have to reach backward to reach the wheels,” and to do that, you need more freedom of motion in the seat.

“What we’ve seen so far are just mockups,” Thompson notes. Once Unicode releases its final proposals for new emoji, tech companies have the chance to iterate on the design of the symbols for their own platforms.

After Thompson tweeted about the design inaccuracies in the wheelchair emoji, a Microsoft employee who focuses on inclusive devices took note and said he’d share her feedback with the company’s designers.

While she acknowledges the importance of disability-related emoji, Guffey would rather see an ISA for the digital world—and greater digital accessibility in general, something that’s out of reach for many people. Apple created a universal access icon, and Guffey says some other examples exist, like “a blobby-looking Vitruvian man” with a number of limbs representing different disabilities. Thompson imagines a digital symbol of access might include several symbols within one box.

In the meantime, disability communities will keep pushing for representation in design. “I’ve seen it trivialized by people who don’t realize the impact,” says Thompson. “Things keep getting done without us for us. We’ve been fighting to be included in the progress of design decisions that involve us for decades, and it still feels like we’re fighting to be heard.”

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