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July 15, 2014

Merriam adopts new disability access symbol

The city of Merriam became the first Midwest city to adopt a modern, more active accessibility icon. The current symbol has been in use since the late 1960s and the national Accessible Icon Project wants to update the image of those who use wheelchairs.

The city of Merriam on Monday night became the first Midwest city to adopt a new symbol for accessible parking deemed more progressive than the stick figure in use since the late 1960s.

Councilman Al Frisby first proposed the move last month, after discussing it with his friend, Finn Bullers, who is the Midwest regional coordinator for the Accessible Icon Project.

Bullers and his fellow activists have been pushing for governments and private businesses to adopt a new, forward-leaning symbol they say better represents people with disabilities today.

The symbol was recently adopted by New York City, but Merriam is the first Midwest city to do so.

No council member expressed opposition to the proposal, but there was about a half-hour’s worth of discussion about the legalities of changing the 30 or so signs at city-owned property at a cost of about $1,000.

City Attorney Michelle Daise said she had researched the matter and found that, while the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act allows for reasonable modification of the handicapped-access parking symbol, Kansas’ Standard Traffic Ordinance, which Merriam accepts, does not.

Therefore, Daise said, “If you move forward with this modification of the symbol and if someone was cited for parking illegally, the argument they could arguably make is ‘That’s not the sign I am accustomed to. I didn’t understand I was parking illegally.’ It’s impossible to say how a judge would rule. … If the judge finds the person not guilty, it could be recommended that we go back to the old sign.”

Mayor Ken Sissom, a former policeman, then poured cold water on the potential risk of adopting the new symbol.

Sissom said he was “pretty well schooled in the ADA” and that he had discussed the matter with Merriam’s municipal judge.

“I believe our judge would use the well-founded reasonable-man standard — that the person should have received the citation … and known he was parking in a handicapped spot,” Sissom said. “Then his only option is to appeal to District Court in Olathe. … That would cost at least a couple of grand to get to District Court to fight a handicapped parking ticket. I’m not sure anyone has the time or money to fight the sign.

“I don’t think the risk is viable, and making the change presents a positive image for our city,” Sissom said.

All the council members voted in favor of Frisby’s motion directing the city staff to note when adopting the 2014 Standard Traffic Ordinance that Merriam was incorporating both the old and new symbols and that it should begin changing over the signs on city property.

Bullers, who was present along with several other advocates, thanked the council “from the bottom of my heart.”

“Today, I have been able to show my young children what civic involvement is all about and how good people can make great decisions,” said the former newspaper reporter. “You have given me wind in my sails. You took the limelight away from New York City and sent a message from the heartland of America that we’re going to take the lead on that. It’s a good scoop and will carry a long way.”

Bullers said he had already discussed the sign change with Johnson County’s facilities manager, who plans to bring the matter before the County Commission, and with the members of the Kansas City Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities, who plan to do likewise with the City Council there.

Candice Minear, a disability rights advocate on the staff of The Whole Person, also attended the meeting. She has used a wheelchair since an injury nine years ago.

“It’s a good move forward to remind people that we still want to be part of the community, no matter what our disability is,” Minear said.

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