A manual wheelchair, a motorised wheelchair, and a set of each with a man or a woman seated in them. A probing cane used by the blind, along with a set with a man and a woman each using it. An ear with a hearing aid. A person (generic), or a woman, or a man, each of which is making the sign for ‘deaf’ in sign language. A prosthetic mechanical arm and leg. A service dog, a guide dog.
These are just some of the 230 new emojis being released this month. Emoji, for those not in the know, are pictographs (the Japanese word is a combination of ‘picture’ and ‘character’) that are standardised as part of the Unicode Consortium’s management of text-based software in millions of platforms and devices. What that means is that, in 2019, you can send a message via SMS or whatever other method, which uses pictures instead of words.
Before the Unicode Consortium stepped in, us cave-people were forced to make faces to each other on the internet using characters of the Roman alphabet, AKA emoticons: :); ;:( ; ;P. Now, just as our distant ancestors painting on the walls of prehistoric caves with animal blood, we can share our thoughts using pictograms. Perhaps a shocked face 😱 to show our feeling, or the juvenile poop emoji💩, or, (May God save us all), the inexplicably inappropriate eggplant: 🍆.
Yet, in a few weeks, the library of emojis we all have access to will be increasing dramatically. (You can find a full brief on the new ones here). Notably, a huge percentage of these new emojis relate to disability. Finally, we can use images of men and women in wheelchairs (electric and not), using probing canes, ears with hearing aids and hearing-impaired people. This may seem like an insignificant victory for disability visibility (after all, we’re talking emojis), but actually it’s tremendous.
In an era in which we express ourselves visually more than linguistically, to be inclusive of disability means having images of disability. A mechanical prosthetic or a service dog shouldn’t be something outside of the vocabulary of our daily lived experience, even if– for better or worse– that lived experience happens within the context of our smartphones.
A few weeks ago, the world lost Carrie Ann Lucas, a lawyer and advocate for disability inclusion and policy. She died, at 47, because her health-insurer denied a routine drug to her that would have saved her life. The absurdity of this is monumental, and the tragedy even more so. If you didn’t know about her work, read this tribute in Forbes, appropriately titled: Carrie Ann Lucas Dies At 47. You Probably Haven’t Heard Of Her, And That’s A Problem.
It’s fabulous that disability inclusion has reached the realm of the emoji– but clearly we have a long way to go yet. As silly as it may seem, I think that our soon-to-be ability to express ourselves using the visual language of disability and different-ability is a small, but significant, step towards the sort of society that Lucas worked, and died, for. In her memory, and in honour of the rich tapestry of ability that includes each of us, I hope these new emojis help us to repair and restore our conception of what it means to include those of all levels of ability in our lives, families, and our society.