Martin Whitfield MP: We need new signage to reflect any and all disabilities
Symbols matter because societal attitudes reflect the way they are interpreted. Until we start a national conversation of how we change and adapt these signs to reflect any and all disabilities, we will continue to marginalise a significant proportion of people who are disabled, says Martin Whitfield MP.
We all recognise the wheelchair sign; the conventional static wheelchair is the symbol of what constitutes a disability. It is the International Symbol of Access and it implicitly defines what it means to be disabled.
The disability charity Scope estimate that there’re 13.9m people in the UK who are disabled, yet just 10% of those who are, are wheelchair users. We often therefore unwittingly discount the range of ‘Invisible’ Disabilities that often restrict the lives of a significant number of people in the UK.
Thankfully this understanding of what we view as a disability is changing but unfortunately there is still a long way to go. Recent research by Crohn’s and Colitis UK revealed that 93% of people questioned think that by challenging a healthy-looking person for using an accessible toilet, they are doing the right thing as they are “standing up for the rights of disabled people”.
I do not think most people responding to this survey did so maliciously. Their first thought was to stand up for what they perceive as those in the greatest need.
We as a society need to ensure that a person with Crohn’s, Autism, Multiple Sclerosis, ME and many other conditions are often as in need of accessibility rights as those with other disabilities.
This was unfortunately the case, when a young constituent of mine tried to use an accessible toilet facility.
Grace Warnock, who is now 14 and has Crohn’s disease was accosted and abused for using an accessible toilet. Grace felt embarrassed and upset but she was determined to do something about it. She started to campaign to make people aware that not all disabilities are visible. This led to her developing a toilet sign and campaigning for people to have a heart.
This continued to develop, and in collaboration with Edinburgh based designer Lucy Richards and in partnership with the Scottish charity the Life Changes Trust, Grace and I are proud to help launch a new ‘Any Disability Sign’ today that represent the range of visible and invisible disabilities that exist across society.
The purpose of this is to convey a message of inclusivity and reshape society’s view of what it is to be disabled.
We have seen huge improvements to the reform of our street furniture and the layout of our built environment, to enable those with limited mobility to get on with their day to day lives. I’m under no illusion that there is a lot further we need to go, and I will continue to push for greater accessibility rights, for those who use wheelchairs and face mobility challenges on a daily basis.
Environmental change however goes hand in hand with changing social perceptions. That is why I will be calling on all governments across the UK to roll out this new design – replacing the wheelchair symbol commonly used on accessible toilet signs and Blue Badge parking permits.
I’m pleased this week to have held discussions with the British Standards Institute and the Minister of State for Disabled People about how we inform, educate and change the perception of what a disability looks like.
Symbols matter because societal attitudes reflect the way they are interpreted. Until we start a national conversation of how we change and adapt these signs to reflect any and all disabilities, we will continue to marginalise a significant proportion of people who are disabled.
Martin Whitfield is Labour MP for East Lothian.