top of page
  • Writer's picturePhilip J Connolly

Semiotics of Disability

Semiotics is the study of anything that communicates something. The anything is regarded as a sign and the something is its meaning. Signs can often be symbols but they can also be anything else such as an intended design. The reception of the sign can be through any of the bodies' senses. We instinctively search for meaning in everything we encounter. Many things are designed so as to offer a silent language. A language for example that can confer status or the lack of status. It is possible to interact with design to challenge elitism and democratise its signs. Disabled people could be the biggest beneficiaries. At London's Design Museum in Kensington it is possible to write a brief that a designer can respond to. Thus directly connecting a need to a possible resolution.

Disabled people themselves carry or wear many signs and through doing so offer meaning to existence. Some places such as the University of the Arts in London (UAL) see the value of this exposure to the designer and are looking to make the social mission central to their design courses and the training they offer in enterprise. I don't know how many disabled students they have but can see the possibility of much needed subversion in current design conventions. Go to it!

Anyone, but particularly disabled people, can sense this language through reading the dominant semiotics. I recall sensing it in a cabinet reshuffle. On the occasion cabinet posts were announced sporadically throughout the afternoon. Those ministers able to attend cabinet were the first announced. The last post filled was the Minister for Disabled People. In my naivety I recall my surprise, why should it be last, no other post offered so much opportunity to serve so many disadvantaged people in the UK. When I went to see him he was being cheerful about his underground office with no window; he was he felt on the first rung of his parliamentary career ladder. I briefly thought about Japan where money and fine clothes are deemed to be a tad vulgar and senior office workers are rewarded in status by a desk facing window that has a nice view. I thought about telling him that disability is a window on the human condition but instead bit my lip and stayed stumm.

If even the minister is last amongst their own peers what does it say about the status of the people he or now she serves? Every disabled person knows the answer to that one. So too do the people with a long-term health condition awaiting an operation or those waiting to be discharged from hospital with a social care package. They know too the meaning of the word patient. It is not just in healthcare though that you get used to being last or even worse designed out because you didn't feature in the policy. Where is the best practice guide to positive action? I think the accessibility ambassadors should get together for a week and write it.

So how do we as disabled people give ourselves an upgrade in status? How do we go further than survey findings advising against wearing brown shoes in town or images of every new Chancellor strutting for the cameras? Well some of the semiotic answers are not expensive or unobtainable. Consider these options: learn your rights, be resilient and collectivise i.e. experience the strength of your community and the wisdom of the crowd. Other semiotics are even easier to make use of. Like Del Boy or Eric Cantona turn your collar up against condescension, wear purple against inferiority and dance or sing about your qualities. Labi Siffre took us to one essence or rather two semiotics in his song, "Something inside so strong."

"Brother and Sister,

when they insist we're not good enough

Goin to look them in the eye and say

We're goin to do it anyway

Cos there's something inside so strong

I know that I can make it though you're doing me wrong"

The Disability Resilience Network has mulled over symbols of who we are and what we are. Are we the keys that represent openness to empathy and innovation. Are we the tortoise that creeps past the sleeping hare. Like the tortoise we have the endurance to be there at the end of the race. However we won’t decide our symbols without you. We invite you to join us and bring your own symbols and new layers of meaning into our discussions. We need to harness the power of semiotics. Together we will deepen the meaning and raise the status of all disabled people. I will even find the twinkle in my blind left eye when I tell you that when we succeed even the minister will see the light.

At there is a form you can fill in to join us. Please complete and send it back to us before our next meeting on April 14th and also send us your own suggested symbol and the story behind your choice.


bottom of page