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We Need To Expand The Emoji Selection To Accurately Represent People with Disabilities

29/07/2016 13:15 | Updated 29 July 2016

Yes, World Emoji Day is a thing. It was Sunday 17th July and you didn't imagine it. Like many of you probably are right now, when I first read this I rolled my eyes and thought "What's next, 'International Missing Sock Awareness Day?" This year however, World Emoji Day did have a real impact as one organisation used it as an opportunity to make a very poignant point.

Scope, a disability charity that provides support, information and advice to more than a quarter of a million disabled people and their families every year, produced 18 new emoji designs that feature disabled people and Paralympic athletes to commemorate World Emoji Day and highlight the need to expand the range of emojis. In a blog post, Scope said:

"Billions of emojis are sent every day on social media and on messaging services like Whatsapp. Despite ongoing efforts to make emojis more diverse with different skin tones and same sex couples, there is just one to represent disability - a wheelchair-user sign, often used as an accessible toilet sign.

"We think this isn't good enough. So we hope that our 18 new emoji designs will inspire Unicode, the organisation that oversees emojis, to represent disabled people in a positive way."

And Scope's Campaign Manager, Rosemary Frazer, agreed, stating:

"It's disappointing that disabled people are represented with just one emoji - the wheelchair user sign. As a wheelchair user, I'm shocked by the lack of imagination. This one symbol can't represent me and the disabled people I know. To truly represent the world we live in, disabled people should be included in a way that reflects the diversity of our lives."

I'm sure some of you may feel like this shouldn't be that big of a deal, and in the grand scheme of things that impact the lives of disabled people in the country this isn't a priority, but emoji's may have more importance than we credit them for.

A 2015 study found that 92% of people online use emoji's, and billions are sent every day. They have become a normal part of our online language, and different countries have different preferences. The most frequently used word of 2014 was even actually an emoji and this real time tracker shows just how many emojis get used every minute! This research suggests that emoji's are simply just part of our everyday vernacular, and therefore should be analysed in the same way that we do with words.

The analysis of language has become far more prevalent in our society, especially in regards to people with disabilities. We often fear that by using a non PC term we may offend someone, and I am sure most readers have been in a situation where they are not sure of the correct terminology for people with disabilities. "People with disabilities" is a far more correct term than say, 'the disabled', and there has been progress with other phrases such as 'wheelchair user', rather than 'wheelchair bound', and using 'visually impaired people', rather than 'the blind'. These are far more inclusive terms and ones that few people would question now the conversation regarding them has been made more public.

Words have power and the way we use language ties into existing power structures, whether that be in regards to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia or ableism. In recent this years this has become far more accepted in regards to changing our everyday language to be more inclusive. So if we accept that emojis are now part of our everyday language and are here to stay, then the need for more diverse emojis is the natural progression of a language that is continuously evolving.

Tyler Schnoebelen, the founder of Ibidon, a language analysis service, expresses it succinctly;

"The set of emoji we have access to are not value-neutral - they express certain kinds of ideology about who does what."

So whilst the range of emojis available to disabled people may seem minor to some people - especially those that think emojis are juvenile - there is a wealth of evidence that emojis are changing the way we interact online and have become a standard part of our discourse. I mean, who hasn't heard someone literally say "happy face" or "crying emoji" to express something in what we consider "normal" conversation.

Apple has introduced a wide variety of emoji races after the company was rightly criticised for the fact its original range of emojis were all white. They have also been criticised for having female emojis as dancers or princesses, whilst males were doctors and firemen. In response Apple has been gradually improving this and diversifying their selection, including the introduction of other progressive selections such as same sex couples.

With this in mind we need to raise awareness that people with disabilities are still underrepresented in many of our daily lives. Imagine a young person who is also a wheelchair user trying to find the right emoji to represent them in a group chat with their friends, and only seeing that one bland symbol - you know the one, the one that's used for EVERYTHING - to represent them. It might not seem like a huge deal, but it's all part of a bigger picture that includes the lesser visibility of disabled people in popular culture and prominent public positions. This can all reduce confidence and create feelings of exclusion. Given this example, I am sure you will agree that it is an important issue that Scope has highlighted.

With the Paralympics approaching we have a fantastic opportunity to increase the visibility of disabled people in society by celebrating athletes who will go on to achieve amazing things. However awareness cannot be something that only happens every four years, so encouraging small things like emoji updates that will impact the everyday lives of people with disabilities is important too.

Please share the great work that Scope have been doing and drive the message home to Unicode - the organisation that oversees emojis and the world's online writing systems - to please consider including them in their next update.

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