CTNJ file photo
Cathy Ludlum of Manchester (CTNJ file photo)

Changing Connecticut’s handicap parking signs from the old image of a stick figure in a wheelchair to a more active version of a stick figure in a wheelchair is more controversial than one might think.

“Adopting the new symbol may attempt to give disability a more positive image, but I would like us to slow down and think about all the issue,” Cathy Ludlum, a Manchester resident with spinal muscular atrophy, told the General Administration and Elections Committee on Monday.

Ludlum said the new sleeker looking symbol “splits the disability community between people admired for their athletic prowess and those of us whose contributions may be less visible and less physical, but are no less important.”

She said for those who don’t not push their own wheelchair they may feel “criticized by a symbol that should empower us.”

But besides the emotional argument, Ludlum said Connecticut does not have the authority to change the symbol.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act and the International Organization for Standardization both require the international symbol of access,” Ludlum said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration ruled on May 28, 2015 that the new handicap symbol is not “unmistakably similar” to the one being used in the “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways.”

However, Ludlum said she was in favor of changing the word “handicapped” on the sign to “reserved,” which is also a recommendation in the legislation.

Jonathan Slifka, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s liaison to the disability community, said that far too often and for far too long the static handicap symbol has been ignored by the able-bodied community, “who seem to park in these spaces or use the accessible bathroom stalls in the interest of convenience.”

Slifka said changing the symbol “will catch people’s attention and remind them the disability does not park in these spaces or use these stalls in the interest of convenience, but rather necessity.”

He said New York has already moved forward with the change and he’s hoping Connecticut follows.

But some lawmakers expressed concern about whether the new symbol conflicts with federal law.

Slifka said he doesn’t believe there’s anything in the Americans with Disabilities Act that would prevent the use of the new more active looking wheelchair symbol from being used.

He said in spite of the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration ruling, New York has moved forward with the new symbol and Connecticut should follow. New York changed its symbol before the highway administration released its ruling.

Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, said he doesn’t want to go changing thousands of signs to later learn the state violated federal highway law even if the ADA is permissive.

“We’re in a dilemma,” Cassano said.

Slifka said they wouldn’t want to jeopardize any federal funding and would do what he could to make lawmakers comfortable with the proposal.

Stephen Morris, the executive director of the Arc of Farmington Valley, said the issue is important to the disability community because of the “power of misperceptions.”

“The root of these misperceptions is most certainly ignorance. Ignorance can be fueled by language and symbols,” Morris said.

Morris said the idea was brought to him by Todd Theriault after it became law in New York. Slifka then brought it to the attention of the governor who proposed the legislation to replace the old signs as they are removed with the new more active looking signs.