Apple has proposed a new group of emoji intended to better represent individuals with disabilities, from icons of prostheses to guide dogs of various breeds. The suggested emoji represent “basic categories for people with disabilities,” according to the technology company’s proposal, submitted this month to the Unicode Consortium.
These four categories are “Blind and Low Vision,” “Deaf and Hard of Hearing,” “Physical Motor,” and “Hidden Disabilities.” The resulting emoji were developed in collaboration with the American Council of the Blind, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and the National Association of the Deaf. Apple proposes 13, and each can be designed in multiple skin tones, providing a total of 45 possible new options.
The proposal explains some of the careful thinking behind each design. Apple, for instance, considered designing an emoji that showed a standalone walking cane or just a hearing aid but decided that those icons would not appear distinctive enough at emoji scale. It also thoughtfully designed this emoji set as an extension of existing characters that show movement — from the dancer to the surfer — so the images portray motion and, consequently, agency. The prosthetic arm, for instance, which appears as technologically advanced, is flexing in a way that conveys both strength and absolute control. There are also two images of people in wheelchairs, one mechanized, and another manual, whose users guide the wheels. The latter emoji brings to mind the design activism of Sara Hendren’s “The Accessible Icon Project,” which advocates for a wheelchair icon in which the figure actively powers their tool.
Apple was also vigilant in its designs for the service dogs, which are supposed to represent “a lifeline in moments of crisis” — helpers for those with hidden disabilities such as Autism, anxiety, and PTSD. A golden retriever emoji with a harness and sturdy handle is intended specifically as a guide dog for the blind, while a shepherd with a vest is meant to symbolize the canines who provide a variety of services such as retrieving objects or detecting seizures.
“The two animals indicate very different types of disability that should not be conflated as one,” the proposal reads. “In addition to that, while the visual distinction may appear subtle, the distinction is clear in text to speech. This is especially important when considering these characters as it may be the primary way that visually impaired users interact with emoji, particularly “guide dog with harness,” which is proposed with these users in mind.
As Apple notes in its proposal, it hopes that these 13 emoji will start a conversation about possible ways to depict disabilities.
“This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of all possible depictions of disabilities,” it notes, “but to provide an initial starting point for greater representation for diversity within the emoji universe.”
If approved, this set will be included in Emoji 12.0, set for release in March 2019. This year’s new list, which includes a mooncake and a sponge, was recently released by the Unicode Consortium. It is due to come to your smartphone later this year.
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This is a fantastic idea! It really brings visibility to people with disabilities in a subtle way. As an abled person, I rarely think about how I don’t have an emoji that represents me, but this goes to show it’s the little things that could have an impact on someone.
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