Think before you share: disability

One of the most interesting things about joining Facebook, for me, has been exposure to the phenomenon known as the ‘share,’ the linking of something or relinking of something someone else published. Shares circulate merrily across the internet (Facebook is a major traffic driver), they get scores of likes, people post thousands of comments. There’s a tendency for people to not even look that closely at what they’re linking and sharing — ‘eh, looks good, my friend posted it and she usually has good taste when it comes to finding interesting stuff on the internet.’

But the share can be an incredibly damaging thing. The thoughtlessly repeated link might not be innocent, and one of the places where I see this most commonly — likely because I’m most aware of it — is in the sense of disablist content, specifically looking at inspiration porn. Ah, nondisabled Facebook readers tell each other, we should exchange links to this adorable/inspiring/beautiful scene featuring disabled people as a wonderful object lesson for all of us to revel in — they’re teaching us valuable things, we can rest smug in the fact that we are not ourselves disabled, and surely none of our readers are either, so there’s no one to be troubled by the things we share.

There are the endless cute children/baby animals in wheelchairs. The ‘look at this person hear for the first time!’ pieces which totally ignore the extremely complicated and fraught debate over hearing aids and implants in the Deaf community, positioning hearing loss instead as something broken and an issue that needs to be fixed, suggesting that anyone who is deaf has been longing to hear since birth. We have the ‘this person’s family/town/etc did something to make her happy, thus resulting in this inspirational video,’ the ‘look at this disabled person doing something perfectly ordinary that has suddenly become remarkable simply by nature of her disability.’ There are the freakshow-esque discussions of adaptive tech, as well as morbid fascination with people who have developed tools to navigate society independently, like visually impaired and blind people who utilise echolocation.

In all these cases, disability is reduced to the presence of an object, not a reality or an actual lived experience. More than that, though, it is specifically about providing an instructional lesson through disability and something that someone has done — or that people have done for the disabled person. Usually it’s about normative behaviours, cases in which disabled people are adhering as closely as possible to nondisabled attitudes, beliefs, ideals, and actions.

Thus, we rarely see a video of, say, two autistics communicating on their own linguistic terms, using flapping, vocalisations, and other tools they’ve developed to create a rich, nuanced common language with its own vocabulary and syntax. Autistics who do this are scary and gross and wrong — they’re ‘nonverbal’ and need to be taught how to communicate like ‘real people.’ Like, say, the video of the autistic child ‘communicating with her parents for the first time’ via a more socially acceptable means, like speaking English or using a communication board to point at images — sure, using a communication board is weird and unsettling, but at least she’s ‘inspiring’ by being willing to go that extra mile to talk with her parents. Of course, no one questions why her parents haven’t bothered to establish communication with her.

Social media becomes a minefield for disabled people who want to stay in touch with friends and associates, because you never know when you’re going to log on and be slapped in the face with an ‘inspirational’ story, link, or (uncaptioned) video. You might come across a great story on a disability rights initiative, but more likely, you’re going to encounter the usual disablist crap that numerous websites specialise in, especially high-traffic sites pumping out articles for SEO. Their tactics work, as readers flock to their content and share it with others, much to the displeasure of those who are tired of seeing their lives used as SEO fodder and the basis of inspirational lessons.

Imagine going about your daily business, doing things you need to get done, or maybe even doing something you just want to do. Perhaps that’s heading out to a path along the ocean to enjoy the sunshine and watch the waves. Maybe you really need to hit the grocery store, the credit union, and the post office. You need to get to an appointment or you want to go shopping for a replacement for the chair the cat tore to shreds. Whatever. You’re out and about in the world.

Imagine being asked if you have an adult with you, if you need help, if anyone is looking after you. Imagine being crowded by people offering unasked assistance and surrounding you with unsolicited comments about you. Now, imagine that someone snaps a picture of you and uploads it on social media. ‘So inspiring! I saw a wheelchair [because that’s always what people seem to call wheelchair users] out on the coastal trail this morning!’ Because wheelchair users don’t like nature, I guess? Or ‘Saw a blind person at the credit union and she looked so well put together! If a blind person can do it, so can we!’ Because blind and visually impaired people I guess don’t care about their personal appearance and don’t work hard on selecting outfits and deciding how they want to look for the day?

This kind of inspirational shared content is the sort people just sort of thoughtlessly ‘like’ or ‘share’ without really thinking about the consequences, so it’s worth asking: When you encounter things about disabled people on social media, why are you sharing/reblogging/liking/faving/retweeting/repinning/whatevering them? What’s your motivation? Interrogate your media. Don’t just accept it.

Image: Wheelchair, Joshua Zader, Flickr