Love them or hate them, emojis are a burgeoning part of our digital vocabulary. In 2017 (on National Emoji Day, no less), Facebook shared that over 5 billion emojis are sent on its Messenger platform daily. As of last June, emoji users had over 2800 choices of emojis, according to Emojipedia, suggesting no shortage of options.
But don’t let that number fool you. There has, in fact, been a dire lack of emojis to reflect our diverse world. Fortunately, that is beginning to change.
Unicode Consortium introduced 59 new, distinct emojis (75 when you factor in gender variations, and 280 when you consider skin tone options).
While Emoji 12.0 comes with some fairly trivial newbies (a melting ice cube and a yo-yo, for instance), it also offers users an array of other options we haven’t seen before, such as a prosthetic arm and leg, a person in a wheelchair (both manual and automatic), a person with a probing cane, a deaf person, an ear with a hearing aid, a service dog, interracial couples and gender-neutral couples.
Unicode did not immediately reply to NBC News' request for comment, but noted in its announcement that the new keyboard will be available on mobile phones later this year.
New emojis may not seem like groundbreaking territory, but this is a significant step towards inclusivity and representation of people that are all too often marginalized by mainstream society.
Until now, the language of emojis has left out disabled people
“Representation is a common topic within the disability community,” says Kendall Brown, a disability advocate and digital strategist. “Disabled people are rarely depicted in popular media, and when we are, it's nearly always simply as a secondary figure meant to help the main character learn something and it's almost always played by an able-bodied actor.”
Brown lives with invisible disabilities including Crohn’s disease and a spine disorder. These types of disabilities are not featured in the new fleet of emojis, but the new options are still a welcome update for her.
“While the new disabled emojis don't directly visually represent my personal health conditions or how others perceive my body, it still feels like they represent my experience and my community, in a way,” she says. “At the very least, they certainly represent an acknowledgement that disabled people exist, and that feels good.”
This is a big win for the ethics of language
Emojis are a subset of language, and language fails us when it does not offer us the opportunity for enriched expression, according to Omar Sultan Haque, MD, PhD, a physician, social scientist and philosopher at Harvard Medical School.
“If our vocabulary is impoverished, we’re constrained in important ways,” Haque tells NBC News BETTER. “The richness of our language should match the richness of human experience, and that includes electronic language which is only getting more popular.”
Haque adds that these emojis may seem like “simple or even silly” fixes to the bigger societal problem of marginalization, but they’re incredibly useful and needed tools.
“These emojis are contributing to a social model of disability teaching,” says Haque. “If you enhance opportunities for people to represent their experience in the world, the possible negative impacts of that disability are diminished, similar to how a functional crosswalk can lessen the challenge of crossing the street if you’re visually impaired. [More over], being able to represent the non-typical bodily state can be not only empowering, but a way in which people can communicate their experiences.”