Why I Dislike the ISA and Why I Think it has Failed

International symbol of access

I hate the International Symbol of Access (ISA). That symbol that is intended to indicate spaces built to accommodate disabled people. It has however fundamentally failed to promote the accessibility that it meant to signify. If anything it has fostered misunderstandings both outside of and within the disability community. The symbol is tellingly often referred to as “The Wheelchair Symbol” and that is unfortunately what far too many people–disabled people included–seem to think it refers to, wheelchair users.

The ISA was and is intended to be generic in reference. It is supposed to be a symbol of access for disabled people. It is not supposed to prioritize or define which needs are accommodated. It is as much for me, an ambulatory part-time mobility aid (a bioness L300 or an AFO) using person or any other embodiment of disability as it is for wheelchair users. Unfortunately, people often look at that image as a guide for who it is intended to benefit. People think the symbol is prescriptive and thus privilege wheelchair users not only in who they consider when they determine what accessibility looks like but also in who they think gets to claim the symbol as representative of themselves.

Nonwheelchair using disabled people absolutely experience discrimination because cultural understandings of disability tend to at the very least require some visible marker of disability of which a wheelchair is often the most recognizable. People who require accessible services but don’t match that cultural image experience judgement and cruelty. People feel righteous and justified in their discriminatory behaviour. They think they are protecting “the truly disabled”.

More recently the ISA has found itself at the centre of a debate about disability representation online. The ISA is the only clearly disability specific emoji available in an ever-expanding selection.

With the latest apple update in emoji again left out any emojis for disability leaving people wondering why there are a plethora of emojis for mystical creatures but the only emoji available to encompass all disability is the ISA. There are no real wheelchair using emoji much less cane using emoji or BiPAP using emoji or really anything that represents the diversity of the disabled experience.

Some outsiders have suggested that we should rely on those mythical creatures that abound in the emoji catalogue to create the nuance that the ISA lacks

We ought apparently resign ourselves to metaphors. Metaphors that also carry the baggage of monstrosity and fear.

Zombies are a scourge that as they shamble along to threaten the dominant parts of society.

Merfolk may have been sanitized by Disney but they were once fearful creatures who lured sailing men to their deaths.

The debate gets worse when disabled people buy into it and suggest that nonwheelchair using people should be further alienated from the ISA by suggesting that it really is only for wheelchair users and that its use by others could be offensive.

The very act of asking this question is problematic and feeds the broader cultural belief that the ISA really does just mean wheelchair users. And as we have no viable alternative, that narrative further marginalizes and delegitimizes the people who are very much disabled but don’t look like what people expect a disabled person to look like.

Attempts have been made to update the ISA. The most enduring of which is simply an updated version of the original.

 

updated access symbol.png

Image Description: Updated accessibility symbol. A white silhouette of an active wheelchair using stick figure

 

It maintains the same issues as its predecessor. Its primary appeal is that it is a less passive image but it still tries to encompass disability with the wheelchair so it is just as misleading.

There are of course more specific access symbols such as symbols which indicate the availability of braille, sign language interpretation or closed captioning.

I have seen some suggest that the current ISA should be replaced with a tableaux of all of the accessibility symbols but this too falls short. They still leave people out and might give nondisabled people the false idea that they have a more complete understanding of what disability is or at least which disabilities count.

The primary problem is that people do not understand what disability looks like and by extension that accessibility needs extend beyond the needs of wheelchair users.

I tend to be a bit jaded in my ability to have faith in the ability of nondisabled people to clue into the reality that they have been comfortably ignoring forever, so I used to believe that we really needed to find that magical symbol that would spell it out for them.

As a result, when a guest speaker in one of my graduate classes suggested replacing the ISA with a more generic symbol of an A to symbolize access I initially balked at the idea. I have since come around to either an A or at least something as vague.

I have come to realize that not only is the existence of an all encompassing symbol impossible. Looking for one just caters to the blissful ignorance of the people who use the ISA to justify defining who deserves access.

It’s time to force them to take responsibility for their ignorance and hopefully learn something in the process.

That is not to say that more specific symbols don’t have their place. It will always be helpful in informing people what specific services and accommodations are available but it would be helpful if people outside of the individuals those symbols benefit were aware that they do not encompass the entirety of access needs.

Embracing vagueness in an update of the ISA forces people to ask questions about why the change happened and reconsider what it means to be disabled and what that looks like. It might also make people wonder why the only thing we’ve had to represent to totality of disability for decades is that stick figure in a wheelchair.

 

 

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Dear Judith Newman, I’m Writing this For You because You Didn’t Write For Me

 

boycott to siri

Image Description: Text “BoycottToSiri” in white on a black background

 

Dear Judith Newman,

I have not read your book To Siri With Love and I frankly don’t intend to. I know this will frustrate some people, maybe even you but I don’t actually think it is relevant to the thing that I want to criticize. I have seen my fellow actually autistic people in pain from your book. I have read their critiques and there are things about your book that quite frankly are unlikely to be saved by added context. The transphobia that exists in the introduction to your book, that you wrote that you wanted the power to sterilize your son, the sexist and disrespectful way you referred to Amythest Schaber.

Yes, yes I know, you’ve since said that you no longer plan or intend to sterilize your son. The thing is it’s too late. You published that awful bigotted sentiment in a best selling book, you can’t take it back now. The damage of that awful statement is already done. Even if you remove it from subsequent editions, it’s still out there and that message will be stronger and longer lasting than any weak backpedalling you do now.

You claim that you apologized to Amythest but as far as I’ve seen you’ve at best made a fauxpology and at worst you’ve simply made excuses. You also still clearly don’t understand why what you did was wrong, so I will again try to explain it to you. There are two major issues.

You described Amythest as a manic pixie dream girl. This term describes a narrative device where a female character (usually quirky) exists entirely for the benefit and consumption of a straight male protagonist and the presumed straight male audience.

You did somewhat address this critique but I have yet to see an actual apology. You have so far only been sorry that your intent was not effectively conveyed. You say that you thought the term was just a more modern version of gamine (a word so obscure I admit I had to look it up). You were just trying to be down with the kids. This response shows that you didn’t understand the other part of why calling Amythest a manic pixie dream girl was inappropriate.

You shouldn’t have been describing Amythest at all. What does what Amythest looks like have to do with the YouTube videos you were citing? Nothing. Reducing Amythest to a physical descriptor regardless of the underlying meaning of the intended compliment was itself inappropriate. People did not need to know that you think Amythest is gamine (a girl with mischievous or boyish charm) to know those videos are full of great information.

The thing I really want to talk to you about though is your response to the backlash from actually autistic people. You brushed off those criticisms by saying that you did not write your book for us.

This is a big problem especially for someone who claims to be autism friendly. With this statement, you prove that autistic people are just props for you. You did not care about the impact of this book on us. You also hide behind stereotypes to deflect from criticisms.

Apparently, we can’t understand your book because you put jokes in it. I can’t speak for all of us but I assure you there are many autistic people who understand jokes. We also know when they are not funny or at our expense.

There is something so utterly isolating about being told that a book where autism is central to the narrative was never intended for autistic people. Are we not part of the population? Do we not read? Shouldn’t you have considered that we might read it? That we are hungry for good representation?

If you are as autism friendly as you claim, shouldn’t you care more about what we have to say? Did you consider getting a sensitivity reader before you published?

You did not write for us and because of that regardless of the content of your book, you promoted our continued marginalization.

You wrote about us without our input to be consumed by people who already think of us as other. By erasing us from your inteded audience you turned us into zoo exhibits.

You did not write for us and the only real reason for forgetting that any part of the population might be part of your audience is because you forgot or don’t acknowledge that we are.

I write this for you because you did not write for me and I want you never to forget that autistic people read your book anyway. autistic people had opinions on your book anyway and you did not listen. Worse than that you have tried to actively silence us.

You did not write for us. Well too fucking bad, we remember that we human even if you and Harper Collins forgot. We’ll read whatever we want and protest when it hurts us. Rave reviews from Jon Stewart be damned.

I write this to you to remind you that regardless of your intent you have caused harm and your response to that has been erasure.

I write this also for anyone who thinks they can write about a marginalized group to which they do not belong and deflect backlash with “well I didn’t write it for you” as though that erases the harm instead of increasing it tenfold.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but silencincing autistic voices hurts far more than me.

Sincerely,

Kim Sauder (Actually Autistic)

 

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Tommy Adaptive and the Complicated Ethics of Having No Alternatives

 

Tommy Adaptive

Image Description: Logo for Tommy Hilfiger’s Adaptive line. Navy Blue text on a black background which reads “Tommy Hilfiger adaptive clothing”

 

Tommy Hilfiger has come out with a line of adaptive clothing for disabled people and I am conflicted. There is so little truly good adaptive fashion available to disabled people and the Tommy Adaptive line is pretty and stylish. Something that is frequently decidedly lacking in adaptive clothing which often seems to presume an elderly clientele and that this clientele will not care if their clothing is hideously ugly (apparently this is somehow a dress and not a hospital gown). I am offended both for this unfortunate assumption about older people and for the fact that clothing brands tend to forget that disabled young people exist.

Adaptive clothing suffers from many pitfalls. If it isn’t hideous then it is still only available online and then may only ship to certain locations. This is true of the Zappos adaptive line (limited to the United States, most models of Nike’s accessible Flyease shoes (limited to the United States), much of Marks & Spencer’s “Easy Dressing” children’s clothing (United Kingdom) and Tommy Adaptive (Canada & the United States). Access to these products requires living in the right country, paying for an expensive forwarding service or knowing accommodating people in those countries. Thank you to the incomparable Alice Wong for sending me my second pair of Nike Flyease shoes after they stopped selling women’s styles in Canada (I will fight anyone who says the friend you make on the internet are fake or in any way inferior to the people you meet in the corporeal world).

The geographical limitations of so many of these products are in and of themselves a serious barrier to access. The fact that most of them are only available online (I’m not sure about the M&S products) requires what is effectively an expensive gamble because they cannot be tried on first (who knew that my autistic self would ever dare buy shoes online but what other choice do I have?). Returning items can be difficult if you are disabled and potentially impossible if you live outside the regular service area and have relied on friends or a forwarding service to get the item. If it doesn’t fit or isn’t flattering then you may be out of luck and out the money.

In terms of actual stylish clothing, Tommy Hilfiger rules the adaptive market. Zappos has a few stylish items designed to be accessible but most of their “adaptive” clothing is really just standard athletic wear. I did not need Zappos consumer research to know that sweatpants and leggings are both stretchy and comfortable. Luckily, I also don’t need Zappos to buy those things. They aren’t exactly work appropriate. They are also culturally stigmatized as the uniform of the lazy if they are worn anywhere except going to and from the gym. They are decidedly not adaptive.

So, Tommy Adaptive enters the market and there aren’t any leggings in sight. There are blouses and cute trousers and cardigans. These clothes are designed to make you feel pretty. It is a distinct departure from almost all preceding accessible fashion. Women’s pants sizes even go up to size 16 which while not an expansive size range is still two sizes higher than Hilfiger’s nonadaptive women’s clothing which tops out at 12.

Tommy Adaptive offers me a unique conundrum because I am both physically disabled and so could benefit from this clothing line (well the tops anyway, my hips and ass will not squeeze into a size 16) and autistic. This is where the ethical conundrum comes in. Tommy Hilfiger, the man is on the board of Autism Speaks.

Autism Speaks is an organization that is deeply unpopular with actually autistic people. (I’ve written about it before so I won’t rehash it all here). Sufficed it to say, I have serious issues with the charity and do not want to support them or people associated with them.

Yet, I cannot tell people not to buy Tommy Adaptive clothing and I cannot even say that I won’t buy any myself. Disabled people have so few options that we do not have the benefit of voting with our wallets and taking our money elsewhere. We do not have the privilege of taking our business elsewhere. There is far to often no place else to take it.

Tommy Adaptive has more or less cornered the market on adaptive clothing that is not either horribly ugly or simply drab and utilitarian. They are more or less the only game in town except the town is actually the world. They provide a product which functionally can make people’s lives easier and which makes them look good in the process. I cannot in good conscience tell people to not take advantage of that if they are able.

All I can do is scream into the void my rage that there are so few options that people are put into the position of having to support companies that they find morally repugnant because there are no alternatives. I am just as furious that the few options that are available are often limited to specific geographical regions and that even if we live in those places that we are relegated to shopping on the internet because products for us are not available in the same way comparable products are available to nondisabled people.

Accessible fashion is unfortunately far too frequently not accessible at all. Yet, these brands are publicly lauded for considering us at all even as they are designed and marketed to keep us separate.

 

 

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If you liked this post and want to support my continued writing please consider becoming a patron on patreon.

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