Olathe and Overland Park are the latest cities to consider doing away with the long-used stick figure on disabled parking signs.
The stick figure’s rigid, lifeless wheelchair stance makes many members of the disabled community cringe. A national advocacy group is working to replace the symbol with a newer, more energetic icon.
“The current sign is outdated and doesn’t represent the disabled community at all,” said Mark Gash, chairman of Olathe’s Persons with Disabilities Advisory Board. “We want to show our community as it really is. We’re very active thanks to advances in technology, which is more than the stereotypes indicate. We want Olathe to be on the forefront of this movement.”
The Accessible Icon Project, a nationwide movement to revise the 46-year-old International Symbol of Access, is promoting the modernization of the familiar sign. The new icon features a livelier stick figure in motion.
Last month, Merriam became the first city in the Midwest to adopt the new sign. It was the second city in the nation to make the change. New York City became the first, earlier this summer.
“We’ve reached one of the biggest cities in the world to a much smaller one right in the middle of the heartland,” said Finn Bullers, the Midwest regional coordinator for the AIP. “Now we just have to fill in the middle.”
In Olathe, Gash and other members of the disabilities board were inspired to follow in Merriam’s footsteps. They are currently in talks with members of the Olathe City Council to make that idea a reality.
“Changing the signs may seem like such a small thing, but sometimes it’s those small things that matter most,” said Gash. “It’s amazing the mind-set that can get attached to a symbol.”
The movement is also spreading to Overland Park and Kansas City.
“I fully support the concept because it’s a no-brainer,” said Overland Park Councilman Paul Lyons. “It’s driven by the people it’s impacting, so there really isn’t a down side.”
Lyons is currently in talks with city staff and other council members to potentially bring the new signs to Overland Park.
He wants to see the modernized signs phased into the city as soon as possible.
That same hope is felt across the state line.
“I would love to see these signs replace all the old ones nationwide,” said Donna Bradford, a member of the Kansas City Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities. “I want it to be the sign you think of first. It shows action, which is much more positive and representative.”
Bradford said the committee is currently in the process of getting the item before the Kansas City Council.
The updated symbol is more than just a sign, it’s a civil rights movement, he pointed out.
After all, the unemployment rate for the disabled is 70 percent, he added. It’s a statistic he finds embarrassing.
Bullers, who has a rare form of muscular dystrophy, considers himself lucky on the job front. He was a reporter at The Kansas City Star for nearly 15 years before becoming a full-time advocate for the disabled community.
“There are a million people like me who have an abundance of skills but they don’t get the opportunity to use them,” said Bullers. “A lot of employers see hiring the disabled as an obstacle because they don’t want to adjust the height of a desk or make the proper accommodations. They find a million reasons not to hire us.”
He has also met his fair share of people who assume the disabled simply cannot play an active role in society.
“The world’s mentality needs to change or we’ll get nowhere,” Bullers said. “This positive new symbol can change people’s perception subconsciously. If we can get a discussion about disabilities and civil rights going because of these signs, we’ve already won half the battle.”
The enthusiasm and support shown in the Kansas City area overwhelms Bullers. He’s hopeful that the movement will soon be embraced by every part of the country.
“When people roll into the grocery store or a restaurant, they don’t want the world to see them as less than whole,” he said. “They play an important role in society. They just want everyone else to realize it as well.”