Elizabeth Regan
State Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford thanks FAVARH client Todd Theriault for his work to change the parking logo for those with disabilities. (Elizabeth Regan)

There is disagreement within the disability community about efforts to update traditional handicapped parking signs to reflect what people can do instead of what they can’t.

The new logo would replace the current stick figure in a wheelchair with a sleeker wheelchair design that represents a person on the move.

“Words and images have meaning — they shape our worldview,” state Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said at a press conference Tuesday at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. “When we change this image that appears passive, to one that implies motion, we more accurately represent the reality that people with disabilities are mobile.”

The “Change the Sign. Change the Attitude” campaign is being spearheaded by an advocacy group, the Arc of Farmington Valley, or FAVARH. Executive Director Stephen Morris said the idea was brought to him by client Todd Theriault after it became law in New York.

“Our hope is that we can influence the public perception of people with accessibility needs,” Morris said. “By bringing attention to the issue we expect we will be able to emphasize to the general public that people they see as “handicapped” are in most ways just as capable as you and me.”

But some people with severe disabilities say the so-called accessible icon does not reflect their reality.

Stephen Mendelsohn, a disability rights advocate and leader of the anti-assisted suicide group Second Thoughts Connecticut, said in a press release that his group opposes changing the internationally-recognized symbol of access.

“The new symbol conveys a profound prejudice against those of us with severe disabilities who need things like power wheelchairs, attendant care, breathing support, and feeding tubes,” Mendelsohn said. “The message being sent is that while it is cool to be ‘able disabled,’ having a severe disability causes one to be a ‘burden.’”

Mendelsohn’s fellow advocate Cathy Ludlum said the current sign, which has been described as “blocky and rigid” by proponents of the change, is the more appropriate image.

“I AM blocky and rigid!” Ludlum said.

Ludlum has spinal muscular atrophy. She uses a motorized wheelchair.

A logo that evokes someone pushing toward the finish line of a race makes unnecessary judgments about those with more severe disabilities, according to Ludlum.

“The old symbol leaves everything up to the imagination,” she said. “The new symbol seems to say that independence has everything to do with the body, which it doesn’t. Independence is who you are inside.”

Second Thoughts Connecticut recommended advocacy efforts on the issue should instead revolve around the campaign’s other focus: changing the wording on signs from “handicapped” to “reserved” or “accessible.”

The group also cited bigger issues that need to be addressed, such as people parking in the access area adjacent to spaces reserved for those with disabilities.

Morris, however, said greater awareness through the Change the Sign campaign will help bring attention to many other problems experienced by those in the disability community.

“This isn’t the biggest or most challenging disability-related issue that we face in Connecticut, but it is important to self advocates like Todd (and the) 1,200-plus people that have signed our petition just since Sept. 1,” he said. “And we hope too that it can bring greater awareness to the larger disability-related issues that we do face, like the misuse of handicapped parking spots, like accessible buildings or inaccessible buildings that still abound in our community.”

The change has a broad coalition of support among Democratic and Republican lawmakers, the governor’s office, and the business community. Proponents say the proposal does not represent a cost to the taxpayer since the new logo would only be used for new construction or when an old sign needs to be replaced.

Jonathan Slifka, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s liaison to the disability community, spoke from his wheelchair at Tuesday’s press conference to say that he looks at the proposed icon as a way to alter people’s perception of those with disabilities as “sedentary, non productive individuals.”

“They, in fact, are not. I am an example of that, and I’ve seen so many people in my work that are shining examples of that, from people with physical disabilities to intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

Critics of changing the signage have cited potential conflicts with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires the use of the International Symbol of Access.

New York-based attorney and disability law specialist John Egan wrote in a blog post that the answer may lie in a provision of the 2010 ADA standards allowing for “alternate designs, products or technologies” that result in “substantially equivalent or greater accessibility.” However, he cautioned that the Department of Justice has not yet issued formal guidance on the issue.

Bye said the legislation will be introduced in the next session of the General Assembly.

“It’s not like we’re saying tomorrow we’re going to replace everything. This is going to take time,” she said. “It’s the beginning of the legislative process when we introduce this bill. We’ll have input from a lot of people. And maybe there will be adjustments.”