We need to talk about an important issue which has escalated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. How this has had an impact on disabled people’s virtual experience online.
You see, ableism is rife in our community. Some of it is intentional and some of it is unintentional.
And most of the time it is driven by misinformation, or ignorance. However, this doesn’t take away from the harm it has inflicted.
So I decided to interview Union President Chloe Whyte and upcoming Disabled Student Officer Holly Kinsella to get an insight on their experiences.
Brig - Do you think disabled people are being treated equally both online and offline?
Chloe described her experience as being quite liberating.
She said: “I think the belief that disabled people are treated more equally online as opposed to offline is quite narrow, and only applies to certain impairments. It is true that the Internet is quite freeing in a sense – you can express yourself in ways that may otherwise be impossible in real life.”
Chloe also outlined how having the Internet gave her the opportunity to fight for disabled rights.
“As someone who is often left confined to her house, I found that the Internet gave me a new platform to advocate for disabled people.”
However, she pointed out how certain voices are silenced.
“We cannot ignore the way in which disabled voices – particularly autistic folks – are silenced for the way they choose to express themselves online, which mostly comes from a lack of awareness and normalisation of harmful jokes/stereotypes.”
Holly highlighted how disabled people might be affected by the pandemic.
She said: “I don’t think disabled people are being considered much at all during this pandemic. I think a lot of people are really only thinking of themselves and forgetting about how isolation and the pandemic is affecting people with disabilities.”
My own experience from this pandemic has been similar. I have had to adjust to remote working in my own home.
This means I am quite active using the Internet, particularly on social media. I have come across, and even been subject to, ableism online.
Disabled people often rely on social media, whether to feel less isolated or to find a much-needed community. So when ableism strikes, it feels like your virtual world is being torn apart by bullies
Additionally, because it is possible to be offensive but not break rules on social media, this could imply oversensitive victims or downplay ableist abuse.
Brig – How much do you think is being done to tackle online ableism?
Chloe highlighted how nothing is being done on social media platforms.
She stated: “The truth is, the internet is too vast and crowded to police effectively, and that’s without looking at the subjective – and often controversial these days – topic of ‘free speech’ and what constitutes a statement vs a hate crime. That being said, there could be far more funding from platform creators into hiring actual humans to look at their ‘community standards’ online.”
She also added how some publicity campaigns haven’t really thought about their audiences.
“I recognise that the police are taking this more seriously, despite publicity campaigns that are… misguided, at best (I’m thinking of the ‘Dear Disablists’ image by Police Scotland).”
Holly outlined how disabled people are standing up for themselves online
She said: “I’ve not really seen a lot being done to tackle ableism online, apart from people who, themselves, are disabled. Even at that, it shouldn’t be solely their responsibility.
There is also a lack of information regarding disability slurs.
A lot of people are using words which are harmful to the disabled community. But it appears that this is not always intentional.
When there is a lack of information or awareness regarding harmful words and phrases, these terms become normalised. The job of undoing that normalisation becomes much more difficult.
Others have turned to light hearted humour.
Humour is always nice to help us get through something, but sometimes it becomes difficult for people to empathise when that humour is making fun of a situation which you had to endure.
Brig – Sometimes the ableism is misguided or unintentional, how would you respond to it?
Chloe expressed the importance of being patient with people.
She said: “The internet has a nasty habit of ‘dogpiling’ or ‘cancelling’ people who are only reiterating the phrases, views or beliefs that have been echoed around them for their whole lives. Some disabled advocates in particular can be a little too quick, too sharp, in policing a stranger’s efforts to advocate for equality.”
Holly added the importance of education.
She said: “I think it’s about recognising when someone isn’t trying to be ableist, and then from that trying to just educate the people who are willing to listen.”
During lockdown, there have been cases of inherent ableism from able-bodied people who complained about having to work from home, or even worse, going to work when they are sick.
Their ‘nightmare’ can be another’s own reality.
People with chronic illnesses are used to sacrificing work and socialising for their health.
When you disobey directives and protocols from health officials, you’re not considering the health of those more at risk of contracting and dying from coronavirus.
Empathy is crucial in these times.
Accessibility has been proven possible during lockdown. If it is now possible to work from home, why did so many disabled students feel like they had to drop classes or a semester because they weren’t physically able to be present?
Brig – Traditional methods such as the phone might be inaccessible. Do you think there should be more accessible ways to report ableism now that everything is online?
Chloe made it clear that ableist hate crimes should be reported via the Police Scotland website, or text 999 using the ‘emergencySMS’ service which requires you to register first.
She said: “Police stations and even BTP stations are also ways to speak to an office in-person. Reporting a hate crime is accessible, but it is the following process afterward that has its flaws.”
Holly described how reporting ableism might be challenging for some disabled people.
She said: “I think if more ways of reporting ableism could exist, then that would be great. The problem is that reporting things like that can be challenging because disabled people are more likely to recognise nuances that able bodied people would not notice as discriminatory.”
Its all well and good finding ways to help make reporting ableism easier, but we have to remember one thing.
We need to tackle the abuse in the first place, before it gets to that stage.
What to remember
Never make assumptions about someone else’s health based on their age or appearance.
It is too common to be told “you don’t look disabled” or “you don’t look sick”. Remember that disabled people do not have to explain themselves to you.
This is also part of the reason why invisible disability activism is common. This must continue if we are to see any progress.
Sometimes, being told you’re ‘severely disabled’ or ‘high functioning/low functioning’ could make it increasingly difficult to seek support. Deliberately downplaying someone’s disability is a form of ableism.
An important take home message is that disabled people will remember your words, and actions for many years to come. Because for some of us, they are daily aspects of life.
Feature Photo Source: Marcus Aurelius on Pexels.com