There are currently 2,666 emojis in the dictionary we all have access to on our phones and computers. You know, those tiny, colorful symbols that we use to punctuate our texts and tweets.
Of those 2,666 emojis, exactly one represents disability.
That’s a measly 0.04 percent of all emojis that currently exist, if you’re out there doing the math. The singular emoji that represents disability is the wheelchair symbol ♿, which was added in 2005.
One symbol, added 13 years ago.
A new proposal from Apple might change that.
If you’re like me, you regularly use emojis. An estimated 74 percent of Americans use them every day. Not a day that goes by that I don’t swipe over to my emoji keyboard and add an illustration to my text, whether to clarify tone or to illustrate more clearly what I’m trying to say.
But while the emojis we have access to have become more diverse over the last few years, I still have only one to represent my identity as a disabled person ― an identity that impacts every single moment of every one of my days.
“I’ll venture a guess that emojis that actually represent our experiences will see frequent use.”
People with disability make up the largest minority population on the planet, and we include members of every other minority population in our group; disability does not differentiate based on skin color, gender or sexuality. More than 1 billion people worldwide have some form of disability, which corresponds to about one in seven people.
Look at an emoji keyboard, however, and you’d never know we exist at all. But if you’re a vampire or a merperson, you’re covered; there are currently seven emojis representing fantasy characters like fairies and elves. That’s seven official, already-released emojis of creatures that do not and will never actually exist in the real world.
The group that decides which emojis get added to the collection ― and therefore which ones ultimately end up on your phone’s keyboard ― is called the Unicode Consortium. This nonprofit corporation coordinates the development of the Unicode Standard, a computing industry standard for the consistent representation of text in most of the world’s writing systems.
Put more simply, Unicode is the backbone of all digital text; it allows computers to transform numeric codes into letters and symbols we can all understand. The consortium was incorporated in 1991, and members include major corporations like Apple, Google and Twitter, in addition to a long list of individuals.
“There are currently 2,666 emojis in the dictionary we all have access to on our phones and computers. ... Exactly one represents disability.”
In 2010, with the release of Unicode Version 6.0, members of the LGBTQ community finally started seeing themselves represented in emoji form. Suddenly, we had emojis of two men holding hands, and two women doing the same. Same-sex families were added in 2015, as well as five different selections for skin tone, replacing bright yellow as the only option. “People all over the world want to have emoji that reflect more human diversity,” the consortium wrote at the time.
And the consortium is absolutely correct. But it wasn’t until last month that it took its first steps toward representing disability, when Apple unveiled a 16-page proposal suggesting 13 new emojis that represent various types of disability. In developing its proposal, Apple worked with community organizations like the American Council of the Blind, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and the National Association of the Deaf. The proposal included a service dog, manual- and mechanical-wheelchair users, and prosthetic arms and legs, among others.
Anyone can propose a new emoji character, but they have to make a solid case for why it should exist. One of the most important factors the consortium considers is expected frequency of use. According to Apple’s proposal, emojis related to disability are frequently requested. And given that people with disability make up 15 percent of the world’s population, I’ll venture a guess that emojis that actually represent our experiences will see frequent use, even if only out of the sheer joy of finally getting them after all this time.
“Anyone can propose a new emoji character, but they have to make a solid case for why it should exist.”
Apple’s proposal will be up for consideration at the end of April. If approved, the emojis will be put on a short list of candidates for the Emoji 12.0 list, set to be released in early 2019. I can’t help but wonder how many consortium members with voting rights also identify as disabled. My assumption is not many, given that it’s taken all 27 years of the Unicode Consortium’s existence for a mere proposal to get this far. Disabled people have been around for all those years, I assure you.
The internet is a reflection of society, and within our society, disability is not a priority. Disabled people see that in nearly every aspect of our existence.
We are nearly four times more likely than nondisabled people to fall below the federal poverty line, which means finding accessible housing is nearly impossible.
We are often prevented from marrying, because it would affect our medical and income benefits.
We can still legally be paid well below minimum wage.
We are often victims of police violence.
We are rarely represented in media, and our roles are usually played by nondisabled actors.
And we don’t even have functional access to the world around us ― 80 percent of the New York City subway is inaccessible, and only 1 in 4 polling places was accessible in 2008.
“I still have only one [emoji] to represent my identity as a disabled person ― an identity that impacts every single moment of every one of my days.”
Given the struggles that disabled people must deal with day in, day out ― struggles that most nondisabled people aren’t even aware exist ― it’s no surprise that it’s taken 27 years for emojis that represent us to become a real possibility.
Until the consortium approves emojis representing disability, we have no emoji of disabled people of any skin tone. No disabled people of any gender identity. No families gathered around a parent with a wheelchair or a prosthetic. No hands signing any version of sign language. No crutches, canes, wheelchairs, braces or any other of the assistive devices that millions upon millions of us use on a daily basis.
No us whatsoever.
Apple’s 13 proposed emojis may be what society needs to recognize that disability representation is sorely needed and long overdue. Casually swiping across illustrations of disability while en route to other emojis may even cause nondisabled people to spend a little more of their day thinking about our existence.
The Unicode Consortium will be making the world a more diverse and inclusive place by approving the 13 emoji additions Apple has proposed. Hopefully, these emojis will be just the beginning of new representation for disabled people like myself.
Ace Ratcliff lives with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, dysautonomia and mast cell activation syndrome, which all make for a particularly rebellious meatcage. Her advocacy is centered around intersectional feminism with a specific focus on disability rights.