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How disabled people find a lifeline in the online world

A burgeoning movement of disabled people made the internet the space for activism and radical organising it is today

A famous New Yorker cartoon from 1993 says: ‘On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.’ The reference to the deeply democratising nature of the internet, and the ability to communicate with people around the world while still protecting your identity, isn’t just a joke, though. For the disability community, the internet represents an opportunity to connect in a way that’s functionally impossible in physical spaces.

Twitter, and social media at large, has become a valuable tool for online organising, with the rise of the hashtag marking a particularly important moment in cultural history. While social media has facilitated the connection of diverse communities and subcultures, and the rise of social movements, it’s been particularly beneficial for the disability community. Disabled people use the internet in unique and distinctive ways, and with threats to net neutrality and internet access looming on the horizon, the future of disability organising could be facing a radical social shift.

Many disabled people live in extreme isolation, a situation actively cultivated by regressive social policy. Some are trapped in their homes because they can’t afford mobility devices, because their illnesses make it challenging to leave the house, or because their communities are inaccessible, limiting the places they can go. Others live in isolated communities, or have rare impairments that make it unlikely they’ll meet someone who shares their experience in person.

The internet has changed all this, creating webs of connection for disability communities that people were eager to take advantage of nearly as soon as the internet itself became widely available to the general public. Disabled people were among the most enthusiastic participants on early listservs, bulletin boards, and other modes of communication; they didn’t need to leave their homes to engage, and they could connect with fellow disabled people globally.

While numerous factors have shaped the disability rights movement, and in-person activism has been a key component of the push for social change, the internet deserves its due; especially with barriers to participation falling. Personal computers are growing more accessible, in both a financial and technical sense, while the rise of smartphones make it much easier to participate in online disability activity. It’s not foolproof — disabled people are less likely to use technology in the U.S. as their nondisabled counterparts — but it’s a start.

In the United States, many nondisabled people only became aware of disability organising, and the disability rights movement, during the fight over health care. ADAPT activists descended upon Capitol Hill and district offices, cheerfully getting arrested to protect access to health care for all — and their work helped defeat a series of dangerous proposals that would have reshaped life in the U.S. for everyone, not just the disability community. But this wasn’t ADAPT’s first time at the rodeo, nor was it the disability rights movement’s first foray into activism — including online.

While #ADAPTandResist may have captured attention, #CriptheVote, a hashtag developed by activist and organiser Alice Wong in collaboration with Gregg Beratan and Andrew Pulrang, had been lively throughout the 2016 election cycle. #CriptheVote continues to be widely used in discussions of politics and disability, alongside #CriptheVoteUK. Disabled people have taken to #disability with a vengeance, taking advantage of hashtags to push their message far and wide — and this includes not just political organising, but engagement with social issues as well. Keah Brown’s #DisabledandCute turned heads when she introduced it by challenging social attitudes about disability, attractiveness, and how society perceives the disability community. #HospitalGlam, created by karolyn gehrig, engages the chronically ill community. Numerous others explore facets of disability identity, sexuality, and culture.

“Disabled people were among the most enthusiastic participants on early listservs, bulletin boards, and other modes of communication; they didn’t need to leave their homes to engage, and they could connect with fellow disabled people globally”

It’s critical to recognise the things that make online disability organising unique and distinctive, particularly in conversations about activism and internet access. For disabled people, being online isn’t just a source of community and fellowship, but at times, a lifeline. No other group faces the distinctive collective cultural isolation the disability community faces, though all groups benefit from the ability to connect with their cohort online. And while disability rights activists are taking cues from other online organisers as they build communities and movements around hashtags, so too is their work being used as a grounding for other activist work. That creates opportunities for intercommunity collaboration and solidarity, and a unique shift in how activist communities approach their work.

#NothingAboutUsWithoutUs has its roots, after all, in a tagline of the disability rights movement from Eastern Europe.