Sneering from the curb

English: A collection of pictograms. Three of ...

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Have you ever pulled into a parking lot, found a space inconveniently far from your destination and fumed as a seemingly healthy individual bounded out of a handicap-tagged car only feet from the door? Have you sneered from the curb: What’s his disability?

Well, I have. And although a common response might be to wonder if the individual is sufficiently disabled to warrant the privilege, the truth is more complicated.

What we often overlook is that not all disabilities are visible or immediately identifiable. That’s one challenge for JMU’s Office of Disability Services, which works to make sure every student with disabilities has a full and rich educational experience.

In talking with disabilities services specialist and Be the Changer Matt Trybus, I’ve learned that not all disabilities are defined by the traditional medical model. Many more are explained by a social model, or as “an interaction between a person and an environment.”

Matt, who is challenged by ADHD, uses himself as an example: “There is no universal sign or logo for disability,” he writes. “There is the iconic image of the person in the wheelchair — but that certainly doesn’t represent me.”

And there is no visual representation of the concept of access to disability services, which is what ODS is all about. But why not? How can a visual symbol or graphic convey it all?

Solving this dilemma has led to an interesting collaboration between ODS and the Institute for Visual Studies. In a seminar course offered this semester, students are exploring how disabilities are conveyed in historical and contemporary contexts. The class, “Representing Disability” (SCOM 490/GRAPH 392) is being taught jointly by the School of Communication Studies’ Melissa Wood Aleman and Bill Thompson from JMU Communications and Marketing. The course explores what it means to create universal designs that will accommodate and depict individuals challenged by disabilities, both seen and unseen.

Working in teams and with persons with disabilities as co-creators, students in the class are creating graphic depictions of disabilities based on the principles of universal design. Students are focusing on four areas of disability: deafness, autism, invisible disabilities and physical mobility. What does it takes to create visual environments that are acccesible to all?

The hope, Thompson says, is “the students can find new ways to represent disabilities that everyone can understand.”

Tomorrow, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012, an initial exhibition exploring universal design will open in IVS, 208 Roop Hall. Later in the semester, an exhibition produced by the students exploring disabilities will go up.

Such an academic exploration of an issue that touches all of us in one way or another should certainly result in more understanding. It should change minds and make us all more understanding and accepting of others.

And I, for one, will no longer sneer from the curb.

To learn more about IVS, go to  (You can also find IVS on Facebook.)
And to learn more about the Office of Disability Services, visit
And read also about the Axis Dance Company which visited campus as the result of  a partnership between the Arts Council of the Valley, JMU’s Office of Disability Services, the Institute for Visual Studies, the Departments of Kinesiology, Occupational Therapy and Health Sciences, and the School of Theater and Dance — 

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

One Response to Sneering from the curb

  1. armst2ja says:

    Visually representing disabilities is a real challenge cause when you start to think about it, only a few disabilities would often come to mind. There are some disabilities that i feel are not seen as disabilities, and it’s incorporating all of them together in a way that people can understand it that make this an exciting idea.


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