Signs have to be readable to the general population, color-coded and neatly categorized and free from unintended interpretations. We like things simple, clear.
In all three states where I’ve taken a driver’s permit test, the thing that stands out is the same: road signs. Stop, slippery road, yield. Orders and warnings—this is the priority of testing knowledge. As far as I can remember, the symbol for disability has never been on a road test I’ve had to take. And yet I’ve known it, instinctively, for decades. It’s the same sign we see on bathroom doors or parking spots: bright blue, a white stick figure outlined in a wheelchair, not unlike an uninspired Keith Haring imitation. Wheelchairs are universal; wheelchairs mean disability. It’s the way to show disability in textbooks and posters for kids’ classrooms; it’s easy, it’s visible. Never mind dynamic disabilities, or how wheelchair users are constantly referred to as wheelchair-bound.
It’s not about the lived realities; it’s about the symbols. What signs can show the world the most easily digested parts of yourself?
In early 2023, there are more emojis for disability than there used to be: “Mechanical Arm” in strongman pose; “Mechanical Leg” bent at the knee; “Ear with Hearing Aid”; Woman, Person, and Man iterations “with Probing Cane”; the same versions for “Mechanical Wheelchair” and “Manual Wheelchair”; “Deaf Woman,” “Deaf Person,” and “Deaf Man,” all signing; “Guide Dog” and “Service Dog”; and, of course, a blue square with “Wheelchair Symbol.” These are, generally speaking, counterparts to “normal” emojis: “Flexed Bicep,” “Leg,” “Ear,” etc.
I teach my students about the symbolic mode, leaning on road signs and emojis to demonstrate what it can do. We talk about cultural frames of reference, how symbols make sense to us or don’t make sense to us or make a different kind of sense to us depending on our own personal experiences of the world. Would someone recognize the different between a guide dog and a service dog if they’re abled? Would they understand the significance of probing canes, or what they’re even called?
There is no symbol for ability. There is no road sign to indicate it. All abled people are not defined by what a specific set of abled people can do. To be abled is “normal.” To be well is “normal,” desirable, even, something several entire industries and countless online content sells to the public as the ideal. Somewhere out there is a Platonic Ideal of the perfectly abled, perfectly healthy, perfectly impenetrable body, something even Achilles could not hope to live up to in legend. No virus can touch this body; it retains hearing, sight, bodily function, painlessness, walking, and all other manner of physical and cognitive abilities to the absolute optimum. We define all humans by this standard, and when they fall short of it, we either try to patch the deficits or we ignore the people who are less-than-ideal altogether.
The perfect, healthy body doesn’t exist—or, if it does exist, it’s an anomaly in time, something that is bound to encounter illness, disability, stress, bodily alteration, or some other deviation from the norm to which we must all allegedly aspire.
Signified: “Normal” people Signifier: An absence (of wheelchair, hearing aid, etc.)
Signified: Disabled people Signifier: Symbols of disability
We have lived years in a global pandemic with mass-disabling effects. It would stand to reason that we could acknowledge that none of us is immune to illness or disability. But reason and logic falter in the face of fear, and so the pretense continues. The pretense doesn’t change reality, of course—only perception of it. Health, wellness, ability—their permanence is a bedtime story we tell ourselves. Imperfection is the human condition; purity is a dangerous myth meant to assuage people as society tells us that variations are unacceptable.
In my experience, people can get very upset if your categories aren’t clearly telegraphed. My disability is primarily tied to fibromyalgia, marked by chronic pain and dizziness. Out in the world, I might pass for “normal.” It is a similar experience to my bisexuality, where I can pass for “normal” in a world that values heterosexuality above all else, ignoring the discomfort of the queer, the unexpected, and the anti-normative by way of confirmation bias.
Husband = Straight
Motherhood = Straight
Long hair and skirts = Straight
And people similarly assess my alleged able-body-ness by a quick visual assessment.
Young = Abled
No wheelchair = Abled
No hearing aid = No Conditions
And that’s what people ultimately want: a visible sign that you’re “normal” so that they don’t have to deal with difference. I have heard it, have written about it, have turned it over in my head again and again.
My disability is invisible—except for my cane. My cane is the signifier of disability, the thing that makes me deviate further from that Platonic Ideal. I have seen and heard others as they try to process what I am. Sometimes quietly, sometimes with displeased looks, and, on some occasions, loudly. I can hear the questions beneath the statements, see the distance from their expectations in their words:
Cane = Old [“But you’re not old!”] Cane = Temporary Injury [“What happened to you?”] Cane = ?
We feel no need to look for signifiers for the average person. People are just People; they do not need adjectives, symbols, social codes to telegraph to the world who they are and what they mean. Really, it’s disabled people and ill people who are marked by the presence of their symbols. Or, at the very least, our symbols have higher stakes than symbols of socially-dictated normalcy.
At the end of the day, even our presence disrupts. Disabled people have a Platonic Ideal imposed upon us: we must be, to borrow the offensive parlance, “wheelchair-bound” or blind or deaf, and we must perform those disabilities in line with what is expected of us. We cannot host nuance or complexity; we cannot contain multitudes. At best, we inspire the abled community, and at worst we inspire discomfort.
Semeiotikos means an ‘interpreter of signs.’ Interpretation can be as individual as the interpreter. For most, ravens are frightening, something spooky and signifying death, something forever associated with the macabre and Edgar Allen Poe. I once read about a goddess, The Morrígan, from Celtic myth, who was as powerful as she was mysterious, fighting alongside the heroic gods in times of war. One of her symbols is the raven, and I have thought about their significance differently ever since; it gave me a new perspective.
I once took a graduate course themed around mimesis. In Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, he discusses symbols and reality at length. Simulacra are symbols that don’t have a true basis in reality. What I remember most from this reading is his example of Disneyland. Disneyland is a fantasy. It is designed as a fantasy. It is a place of happy things and pixie dust and childhood nostalgia, in its most ideal form. But don’t the realities still exist even when we lost ourselves in the fantasy? Even at its most superficial, aren’t there still lines and disgruntled children and overpriced merchandise? Those realities don’t go away because we’ve bought into a fantasy.
This is the construct we have around ability, around wellness. We buy into the fantasy of being abled. We ignore the smaller inconsistencies, minor inconveniences like glasses signifying less-than-perfect eyesight. Disabled and ill life is swept under the rug where it can’t disturb the fantasy of abled existence. We are only ever a welcome presence if we can add to the pleasure of the fantasy, using disabled people as inspiration for the abled, or giving the disabled a basic level of respect to only pat oneself on the back.
For anyone who spends more than five minutes on Disability Twitter in the early 2020s, it would take a concerted effort to ignore the discourse surrounding the pandemic. Discussions abound about the way that immunocompromised people have been left behind, now more than ever before; about accommodations that benefit the disabled and later get taken away because of decreased usefulness to the abled; about how absence policies and in-person conferences work against us in academia.
It is difficult, as a disabled person, to not feel like Cassandra. We speak the truth and no one listens (except, of course, when it benefits those outside of our community).
At the end of the day, we are signified, but we are not significant.
“(In)Significant, Other(ed)” appears in Wishbone Words magazine, issue no. 11, and is published in Wordgathering with permission.
About the Author
Audrey T. Carroll is the author of the What Blooms in the Dark (ELJ Editions, 2024) and Parts of Speech: A Disabled Dictionary (Alien Buddha Press, 2023). Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and for Best of the Net. Her writing has appeared in Lost Balloon, CRAFT, JMWW, Bending Genres, Hawaii Pacific Review, and others. She is a bi/queer and disabled/chronically ill writer who serves as a Diversity & Inclusion Editor for the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. She can be found online via her website and @AudreyTCarroll on Twitter and Instagram