Thesis By Timothy V. Cox Excerpted with Permission exclusively for PUSHLiving.com
It has been a very personal journey to research and write this thesis spotlighting a problem that I see in my field of graphic design. Though I have been in a wheelchair for nearly 30 years, I have never been an active advocate for disability rights. I realize now that no change can happen until I get involved and remember the motto of those that have fought for disability rights of “nothing for us without us.”
Inclusion into society has been a cause for minority populations for many years. The fight for minority rights has become the epitome of freedom and created benchmarks in history books. One minority group, the disabled community continues to push for rights with employment, education, and accessibility and have made several steps forward in those avenues through legislation.
Though policies have helped in many ways there is still a visual disparity when it comes to the representation of the disabled in the industry of graphic design. This paper spotlights the problem by showing exclusion, specifically against wheelchair users in several areas where graphic design is used as well as advertising. The evidence posits one of the main reasons for the omission and avoidance of the disabled is an in depth fear of becoming disabled and losing control. There are a few bright spots in graphic design concerning the disabled and these should be the beginning of a conversation about inclusion and not visualizing the disabled as broken but as a vital part of society.
In the world today, inclusion has become headline news. Acknowledgement and acceptance from battles of equality for ethnicities, women and most recently, the LGBTQ community, have become very important. At the end of Caitlyn Jenner’s acceptance speech of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the Espys, she talked about wanting to use her time in the spotlight for bringing attention to the importance of acceptance by saying, “more broadly to promote a very simple idea: accepting people for who they are. Accepting people’s differences.” This idea is indeed simple, one particular group of people continues to be excluded visually based on the idealization of the human body.
That community of people are the disabled who fall short of the non-disabled standard of perfection. The disabled, in particular wheelchair users, are seen as a constant reminder of the pain and suffering of what could have been and what still could be in the future for the non-disabled (Wendell, 113). The world is set up for this idealized “normal” body with little to no room for those who do not meet that standard. A consumer-based society does not want to promote the abnormal for their products meant for perfection (Davis 1999, 507). Being included and represented as a part of society is an important part of acceptance.
As a graphic designer and paraplegic, my goal is to shed light on this problem by demonstrating that there is neglect of disabled representation in the field of graphic design resulting in a “visual disparity” between the disabled and the non-disabled world. This disparity has promulgated an atmosphere of shame, and fear, and garnered disrespect that serves to isolate the physically impaired continuing an “us” and “them” attitude (Davis/Wendell).
This separation has created a prejudice called ableism that is in the same arena as racism or sexism. It is a form of discrimination against the disabled that marginalizes them through practices, processes and beliefs that leads to the disabled being treated unfairly and unequal to that of non-disabled (Campbell, 5). These lead one to see that having little to no representation of the disabled in graphic design is also a form of ableism.
To have little-to-no representation visually is limiting the idea of diversity. Diversity is an ideal that should show a variety of people made up of cultures, ethnicities, religions, genders, age ranges, sexual orientations, socioeconomic, abilities, and many more categories to form a community. It is recognizing and respecting these different perspectives, that creates fresh ideas and acceptance in a healthy society. By acknowledging diversity, communities understand that they are different and similar on many different levels, and since it applies to everyone, it should be something about which everyone cares. By limiting diversity, a society creates benefits for some while creating disadvantages for others (Queensborough Community College).
Disability is hard to empathetically acknowledge by many non-disabled, but it should be something that is accepted and learned about because the disabled deserve to be a part of this diverse community and enjoy life’s every moment. The disabled are fighting against being ignored and dismissed and that fight is now being laid at the non-disabled feet of the world of graphic design and the clients that finance them. To this point of wanting acceptance, Jess Thom, a disabled comedian and advocate said this on the Guardian YouTube channel,
“They’re often nervous about even calling me disabled and clearly see it as a negative term. I don’t see it that way at all. Saying I’m disabled acknowledges the barriers I face because of the collective failure to consider difference. Pretending these barriers don’t exist doesn’t make them go away…As soon as we stop shying away from differences we can start to appreciate our similarities” (Thom).
Despite the physically impaired now having the right to more physical access (via legislation such as the ADA), they are still facing discrimination and ableism in many ways, and one of them is in the form of visual discrimination of not being included into a society that idealizes the human body.
Susan Wendell in her paper, “Toward A Feminist Theory of Disability” says, “People learn to identify with their own strengths and to hate, fear and neglect their own weaknesses. The disabled are not only de-valued [sic] for their devalued body, they are constant reminders to the non-disabled of the negative body-of what the non-disabled are trying to avoid, forget and ignore” (Wendell, 113).
The history of the physical, mental, and economic treatment and mistreatment of the disabled goes back almost to the earliest time of recorded history. Those who were in the” abnormal category” were marked in the late 1860s when new laws were put into place around the U.S. These so-called “ugly” laws specifically targeted the disabled and their appearance to the non-disabled public. The Chicago law, one of the areas that kept it the longest, was also the most exacting in their language of whom it did and did not affect.
No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense (Coco, 23).
Just as it took politics to breakdown the discrimination of the “ugly” laws, political power was used in the early 20th century to begin giving rights to the disabled as heroes returned from fighting overseas in the World Wars. Men returned having to face a life in a wheelchair, using mobility aids, or prosthetics to begin their life again.
Reporter John Hockenberry stated a similar mentality of the disabled in his TED Talk from 2010,
“I had no option but to make up this new life without walking. I