• Signs and Wanderers: Exploring Semiotics of Disability In Literature and Life

    With what could possibly be described as a reaction akin to that of Pavlovian’s canines when they heard the anticipated bell, as an instructor at Tarrant County College in Arlington, Texas, I immediately quicken with delight when driving upon one of much-coveted yellow parking spaces at work. Oftimes purloined by tardy students in a hurry to avoid the post-roll-call walk of shame, these yellow parking spaces are supposedly reserved for employee parking only. Therefore, when my bi-focaled eyes spy one of these spaces – closer to the doors and, therefore, requiring less walking than the white student-designated spaces – my brain immediately signals me to dash into the space, with the rest of my body agreeing in blissful glee (if they could, my arthritic knees would jump for joy…but they can’t…because they ache constantly). Every morning that I am able to score one of these elusive prizes, I say a silent prayer and swiftly zoom into the empty space, lest my younger, more agile co-parkers beat me to it. To me, the yellow parking lines serve as a semiotic of pain-free work entry. And, lest you think me lazy, I am not alone in my zeal to acquire such a space ever workday: My colleagues, too, often bemoan the shortage of “our” parking spaces that are often scooped up by the educatees. As employees, we feel a sense of entitlement to these spaces as one of our few perks: as the owners of sticker-bearing vehicles for said spaces, we feel justified. As the more senior, we will not be denied! Without hesitation, we zoom into these spaces. Nothing…at all…can keep us from them….except….being the rule-following educators we are…if the spaces being designated for drivers with disabilities.

    For as long as I have worked at the college a certain set of yellow parking spaces have had handicap signs painted in them. However, it seems that these signs were intentionally white washed quite some time ago. In speaking to one of our groundskeepers, I found that, in order to accommodate students with ambulatory disabilities better, a new section of parking spaces closer to the main entrances had been constructed. When this happened, the groundskeepers dilligently attempted to cover the spaces with white paint. While this fix held for a short period of time, what remains is what is shown in the picture above: Signs that, while once served as indisputable markers of spaces ascribed to people with disabilities have, in their current state, become misnomers and oxymorons, confusing any and all who do not know the history of the parking lot and subsequent changes. This week, after presenting my paper "Living on the Periphery: Exploration of Disability Studies and Semiotics in William Gibson's The Peripheral" at the 50th Annual College English Association conferences in New Orleans, in reflecting on these signs, I am reminded of the history of the handicap symbol.

    In 1968, Danish student Suzanne Koefoed designed the handicap icon as an entry to a contest. Simplistic in nature, her design consisted of  “….a headless, inactive body in a wheelchair with arms extended outward." After several minor modifications, her graphic was adopted by the International Organization for Standardization’s database for use with equipment. Though she won the contest, Koefoed certainly could not have envisioned the universal cultural icon her drawing would become as a semiotic for people with disabilities. In 2012 – more than forty-five years after Koefoed’s winning design’s creation – New York State authorized changes to the symbol on all uses statewide.  In an effort to project a more accurate and appropriate depiction of people with disabilities, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation stipulating that a revised version of the iconic symbol replaced the former graphic and be used throughout the state. Created by Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering Professor of Design Sara Hendren and graphic artist Brian Glenny, the updated icon features extended limbs, a foreword leaning torso, and front-facing head. All these changes are indicative of a body in motion. Also changing the accompanying wording from “handicapped” to “accessible,” New York realized that perceptions about people with disabilities have changed. As such, any symbol representing disability must evolve and adapt if it is to be an accurate symbol. As society slowly realizes that disability does not necessarily entail helpless nor total and utter dis-abilty, the semiotic associated with this demographic must evolve to yield accurate representation.

    Just as with our weather-and-traffic-lorn handicap parking signs at work, antiquated, white-washed depictions of people with disabilities do a disservice to us all. Luckily, authors like William Gibson in The Peripheral present us with fresher, sharper views of people with disabilities.  In a Gibsonian universe, people such as Conner – a quadriplegic in his Tarantula, a motorized wheelchair and Burton, a PTSD-plagued war veteran – are not viewed solely for their disabilities. Gibson paints a clear picture of the individual as a whole person, replete with a personality, character flaws, and the ability to mature and change. In doing so, he clears the haze associated with literary depictions of people with disabilities and, thusly, offers readers the opportunity to view people with disabilities through a more humanistic lense. 

    Even though I have worked at the college now for more than five years, admittedly, I still give pause when I approach one of the yellow parking spaces with the old handicap signs. While one part of me subconsciously responds to the semiotic of the yellow lines, that response is sometimes overridden by my knee jerk reaction to not park where I see the sign. Many mornings, I have had to stop and reason within myself that the sign I am seeing is no longer valid and therefore no longer an indicator as to how to proceed. Equally, one must also reevaluate his or her conceptions of what disability really means to see if it is a viable, current interpretation of what we now know and understand about the abilities of people with disabilities.

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