Despite some dissent, Prairie Village passes measure showing support for new disabled access signage

Prairie Village resident Finn Bullers lobbied the city council to include support for a new disabled access sign in its 2015 legislative agenda.
Prairie Village resident Finn Bullers lobbied the city council to include support for a new disabled access sign in its 2015 legislative agenda.

The Prairie Village city council this week gave a show of support for a resident’s push to update the traditional disabled access icon to a symbol that depicts a more active image of people in wheelchairs — but not without some heated discussion.

Support for a change in federal law that would allow for the use of a new disabled access icon was part of the city council’s 2015 legislative platform, a series of legislative priorities the city usually signs onto with the county to communicate to legislators what local governments see as some of the top goals for the coming year.

In earlier discussions, the council had initially tabbed the item about the disabled access signage for removal from the legislative agenda after a number of councilors expressed concern that its inclusion in the list might make take away from what they hoped would be a clear focus on education funding and maintaining local non-partisan elections.

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The new accessible icon disabled advocates are lobbying for.

But Finn Bullers, who is spearheading local efforts to change the disabled access icon, came to Monday’s city council meeting and made made an impassioned case for including the icon provision on the platform. Bullers noted that the state of New York has adopted measures to move toward the new icon, and he hoped Prairie Village would show it was progressive on the issue as well. He said the new icon was important because it influenced how society views people with disabilities. The new symbol is a better depiction of what disabled people can be, he said.

“You get a symbol that is active, engaged, robust,” he said. “It’s more than just a frivolous way by which we spend our time. Symbolism matters. It represents who we stand for and why we matter.”

The bulk of the council was swayed by the arguments, but two councilors — Ward 6’s Terrence Gallagher and Ward 3’s Andrew Wang — said they felt a statement of support for transitioning to the new icon was unnecessary.

Gallagher has a daughter whose disabilities prevent her from speaking and confine her to a wheelchair. He said he felt that the show of support for the updated icon was not warranted because “icons don’t define who people are. People define who they are.”

Wang took a sharper tone in his criticism of the idea, saying that it wasn’t the city council’s role to voice support or objection to such initiatives. He noted that many stick figure representations of people aren’t inclusive, saying that he, as an Asian-American man, didn’t feel discriminated against when he sees stick figures on bathroom doors that are the color white.

“We’re looking at something that doesn’t save the people of Prairie Village anything, and it doesn’t create a single dollar,” Wang said.

Bullers protested that Wang, as an able-bodied man, may not have the necessary frame of reference to understand how the traditional disabled access symbol is perceived by disabled persons. At one point, the two men had a heated exchange in which they were talking over one another.

When the question was called shortly thereafter, the council approved the measure by a 10-2 margin, with Wang and Gallagher voting against it.

“This is a ground up movement, and I’m happy that it’s starting in a place like Prairie Village,” said councilor Ruth Hopkins. “I think we owe him this, so he can show his city is behind him.”

On Tuesday, though, the interaction with Wang was still sticking with Bullers, who expressed his frustrations to another council member in an email.

“I’m unclear why the council member’s position bothered me so. The vote was 10-2 in favor of the measure to support the access symbol. And in the political realm, that’s a landslide victory by some 83 percent,” he wrote. “But those two ‘no’ votes came from two able-bodied elected officials who claimed to understand — and know — the disability experience. And although those thoughts certainly were not vocalized, it was clear by the ballots they cast that they were comfortable speaking for a minority population of which they were graced to never have been made a member.”