Will Merriam be the first Midwest city to adopt modern wheelchair access icon?

07/08/2014 5:17 PM

07/08/2014 5:17 PM

It’s time for signs to keep up with the times.

That is the contention of two men who are working to make Merriam the first Midwest city to adopt a new, more active-looking symbol indicating a place is accessible to those who use wheelchairs.

Finn Bullers of Prairie Village is a former Kansas City Star reporter and now the Midwest regional coordinator for the Accessible Icon Project, which is working to change the 45-year-old upright stick figure to something more forward-leaning, lifelike and life-affirming.

Bullers has a form of muscular dystrophy that requires him to use a wheelchair. Last year, he fought a very public battle with the state of Kansas to retain the 24-hour-a-day caregivers provided to him through the KanCare Medicaid program.

Now Bullers has embarked on another effort to change government policy. And while this one is less grave, it also relates to his disability.

Bullers convinced Merriam City Councilman Al Frisby to formally propose that the city adopt the new accessible icon at a July 14 meeting of the council.

“We’re evolving this symbol to make it more friendly, not stoic,” Frisby said. He described the proposed new symbol as “aggressive, on the move, helping the community.”

Frisby said he has several friends, including Bullers, who use wheelchairs, “and they are all involved in the community. They are generally not stoic. They don’t sit and twiddle their thumbs.”

That’s why, Frisby said, he decided to bring the symbol change before the Merriam council.

The new symbol was created in 2012 by two Boston-area residents — Brian Glenney, a former graffiti artist and now assistant professor of philosophy at Gordon College, and designer/activist Sara Hendren. It has been adopted by a few governments and private entities — New York City being the most prominent — and Merriam would be the first Midwest city to adopt it.

Frisby said he would introduce the concept at the July 14 council meeting and hopes it can be voted upon at the following meeting. He hopes wheelchair users and disability advocates will attend the meetings “to send a message to the mayor and council” that this is what they want.

Frisby said adoption of the new symbol would send a message of respect to wheelchair users, as well as to the general public.

Since he first talked to Bullers about the change, Frisby said he has been researching the legalities involved. The Accessible Icon Project says that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require any particular symbol for accessible entry — just that public buildings have them. Rather, it is up to states and localities to make their own rules.

Frisby said Merriam’s city attorney agrees.

“She has run across … no reason that we should dismiss the idea outright,” Frisby said. “It (the new symbol) should do what the other signs did. The law says it shouldn’t confuse people.”

It wouldn’t cost Merriam much to make the change, and Bullers is working on a plan to raise donations to eliminate that objection, too.

Frisby said there are about 40 blue and white accessible-entry metal signs on poles on city property, and they could be changed by covering them with stickers that cost between $3 and $8 a piece. Symbols painted on paving could be replaced with a new stencil when they wear out. Businesses and other private entities maintain their own signs.

Bullers proposes having members and supporters of the disability community collect the $120 or so it would cost to buy and donate weatherized stickers to the city, should Merriam agree to make the change.

Bullers attended the June 9 council meeting to promote the change.

“They were basically neutral on the idea,” Frisby said. “They asked questions. It’s up to us to convince the council and the mayor and staff that this is the time to show more respect for the disabled.”

Bullers has lobbied Mayor Ken Sissom and the other seven members of the council.

He said there has been a growing concern within the disability community that the current access symbol, created in 1968 and used since 1969, has become outdated and no longer reflects the active lifestyles of people with disabilities.

“The signs have not kept up with our times,” Bullers said. “They can be a very strong subconscious message to individuals.”

With the new symbol, Bullers said, “You begin to think differently about people with disabilities, and it sets the foundation for a larger discussion about issues like public transportation and disability. You think of people not as confined to a wheelchair but liberated by it.”

Bullers wrote in an email that “people with disabilities have a long history of being spoken for, of being rendered passive in decisions about their lives. The old icon, while a milestone in ADA history, displays that passivity.... As people with disabilities of all kinds — not just chair users — create greater rights and opportunities for social, political and cultural participation, we think cities should evolve their images of accessibility, too.”

If Merriam adopts the new symbol, that would show that the city is “progressive, inclusive and diverse,” Bullers said. “It would show leadership.”

And then?

“We like to dream big and we hope that the idea catches on city by city, state by state, and eventually spreads across the globe,” Bullers wrote.

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