More Than “A teachable moment”: Disability Activism and the Internet

“One of my biggest goals in life is to be a resource for other people”. Kings Floyd is pondering the importance of being an influencer. A US-based writer, advocate and wheelchair-using disability activist, she recently hosted a TedxDirigo talk on housing accessibility— publicising it on Facebook, it was met with rapturous praise by the many people she knows though the Disco, aka the online disability community.

The impact she is looking to make through her activism is often at the forefront of her mind, and she is not alone. For many wheelchair-users with a big online presence, their chair is mostly just a fact of life—but it also gains a symbolism beyond that.

No one could suggest that Floyd engages in activism through screen only; she’s been arrested six times, at various actions for disability rights. She rates the instantaneous impact of social media as a lifesaver when combined with the difficulties that such events can bring.

“We really ran out of money, one time. We had so many activists participating. So, a call went out on social media. “We still have people in jail, who can help us out.”. Within an hour, we had above the amount of money necessary [for bail]”, she says.

For British blogger Shona Louise Cobb, her internet exposure—she has 10.4k followers on her Twitter account alone—has also been essential. It crowdfunded her powerchair, which became a necessity when the complications of her Marfan Syndrome progressed. She was not eligible for the chair under the NHS and their “very strict” criteria. “Social media was sort of the centre of that fundraising. It ended up being the only method I used, because it was so successful”, she admits. Her GoFundMe attracted a total of 462 donors, surpassing her £11,500 target.

She is not alone in her story: “most of the friends I have that are wheelchair users have had to crowdfund for their chairs”. Whilst she recognises that the situation remains outrageous, she is thankful that these funding drives continue to achieve their goals.

Both Cobb and Floyd feel that much of their online support comes from those who are also disabled. Statistics would suggest they are speaking to an even more limited audience than one might expect. Disabled people, at least in the UK, are 25% less likely to use the internet than non-disabled people, according to research published by Ofcom earlier this year.

Coupled with research by disability charity Scope, which suggests that up to 26% of non-disabled people have avoided engaging in conversation with a disabled person, their platform seems more urgent than ever, playing an essential part in challenging everyday prejudice.

Emily Ladau has dedicated her career to disability blogging in the U.S.—first with her own blog, Words I Wheel By, then running the blogging platform for disabled storytelling organisation Rooted in Rights. She admits some frustration towards being “constantly a teachable moment”.

She also thinks that it has its upsides, though: “I can pick the themed messages I’m focused on through social media and apply them through real-world interaction; that’s how we create change one person at a time”.

This has worked to the benefit of British travel blogger Carrie-Ann Lightley.  Her posts on her self-titled blog regularly gain hundreds of views and her other main online outlet, Twitter, has nearly two thousand followers. She is proud to recall instances in which her work has encouraged disabled people to expand their horizons. She remembers a woman who read a blog post about a trip to Rome—” she’d visited when she was younger and now that she was older, she’d acquired a disability. She just presumed that she couldn’t go there—but she read my article and she booked the trip based on that”, she says.

She also believes that disability-focused content is slowly becoming more mainstream, especially when it “raises awareness of some of the crap that disabled people have to go through in day to day life”. She feels that it gains more publicity because “it’s shocking to the people who don’t have to experience it”.

However, she thinks that with this comes the danger of desensitisation as hearing about prejudice becomes more common. She is sceptical as to whether an able-bodied audience can maintain their attention towards ableism: “I don’t know what the answer is to keep it current, but not just run-of-the-mill”, she says.

While reaching a wider audience is still in many ways a new frontier, an impact on a generational level has already been felt. Ladau’s mother shares her disability. Although she emphasises how she advocated for the two of them throughout her life, she confesses that “she was not necessarily an activist in a professional sense”.

“She actually joined in because I started getting into advocacy. A lot of that has to do with the fact that social media was readily available to me, in a way that it obviously wasn’t for her”.

It is this availability that seems to be the focal point of most online disability activism, which Floyd compares to her coming of age on social media: “I didn’t see a lot of disability representation. I didn’t have someone who is older than me, who was female, who was active in their community”, she says. Arguably, this is an area in which these activists are making a change.

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