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Disabled Slacktivism

By Tim Hardy

For those who are house-bound through illness or disability, there are insurmountable barriers to public protest.

But that does not mean that your voice does not matter.

Technology can empower and amplify the voices of those who are too rarely heard in society, those who risk being the invisible victims of coalition cuts.

Most forms of conventional activism are about getting a message to as many people as possible, about drawing the attention of a notoriously fickle and superficial media industry to causes that have been misrepresented by those with vested interests. Often these are too complex to explain in a soundbite which is fatal in an industry that cares primarily with stopping people from switching channels or reading something else. A dramatic, theatrical protest catches the eye, draws the crowds and the cameras, pins attention long enough for some of the message to get through.

Great writing, great drama, great stories can have the same effect. To dismiss honest, powerful, personal accounts of living with disability as inferior to pounding the pavements, knocking on doors and handing out leaflets is arrogant.

I believe that most people are fundamentally good and that honest speech, discussion, journalism, art and fiction all play a key role in increasing our understanding of one another and developing the empathy needed to build better, more inclusive ways of living.

Nobody would deny that it takes more commitment to write an article for One Month Before Heartbreak than it does to click “Like” or share a story via social networks. If you insist on being scornful, you can regard the writers as showing more commitment than the readers if that really makes you feel superior. But here I would argue that online activism is a valid label to describe the courageous act of sharing through writing; and that the solidarity the act creates with others who read, share and are motivated to write too is as real as the solidarity of the march.

As part of this refusal to remain silent, those who cannot make it to the protests on Monday physically for the National Day of Cuts Against Benefit Claimants on the 24th January 2011, the internet also gives one a chance to make your voices heard via the second troll a Tory day where participants are encouraged to let those behind these savage cuts face the anger of those they would like to pretend do not exist.

Sometimes there is no distinction between online and offline activism.

Dismissing the former out of hand merely reinforces the barriers to protest and makes you part of the problem.

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12 thoughts on “Disabled Slacktivism

  1. Lex says:

    Ta for this. LibCon have been great with helping to twitter and raise awareness of OMBH, and Laurie Penny has but I can’t help feeling more people in the anti-cuts or Lefty type journalism and activism need to get involved more (in raising awareness of how disproportionately we are being hit with cuts)

    I know OMBH and BofB are non political campaigns but for me, personally anyway I’d like to see a wee bit more solidarity from the rest of the left.

    I’m not connected to OMBH so I’m saying that purely as an outside observer. I am not speaking on behalf of that campaign.

    Just seems to me that disabled voices are getting shouted down in the mix a bit. Though OMBH was a brilliant success.

    Didn’t know about troll a Tory day, so cheers for that.

    • Hi Lex

      I wholeheartedly agree.

      I get the feeling that the message *is* getting through to journalists although slowly. I don’t believe Johann Hari has written directly on OMBH or BofB yet but he was clearly very moved by stories he heard at netroots uk so I wouldn’t be surprised if he does in future (he has written very powerfully on his own problems with depression in the past).

      There’s a video here featuring him and advice on how to make the media listen:

      http://www.netrootsuk.org/workshops/workshop-how-to-make-sure-the-media-delivers-for-us/

      I’m not mad about the title troll a Tory – I’d rather it was called, say, hug a Tory. I think in debate we should make our points firmly but without being abusive and never forget out common humanity no matter how strongly we disagree.

      OMBH was wonderful. I read so many powerful, beautiful stories. The personal is always political.

      • Lex says:

        Agree about the name, it might just get peoples backs up. Angry or insulted people don’t listen as closely.

        Thanks for the vid. Will watch now.

  2. @Lex

    “Angry or insulted people don’t listen as closely.”

    We need to write that in letters ten foot high! Sometimes it’s too tempting to allow the anger that motivates us to act to turn into an attack – but that never helps us achieve our goals.

    Hope you enjoy the vid. A lot of the other netroots uk presentations and workshops were recorded as well. Might be worth having a look at the site if you enjoyed it – there was a lot of interesting stuff going on that day.

  3. Bob Williams-Findlay says:

    How can you claim OMBH is a non-political campaign? By opposing the proposals being made by the Government around the reform of the DLA benefit, one is taking a stand. The decision to undertake this reform was a political one, therefore willingly or not, the campaign becomes political. Under the banner of OMBH I have read some moving testimonies, but I remain critical of the campaign itself.

    If the Government gets away with this reform many disabled people will lose their entitlement, be pushed further into poverty or unemployment – I said, “If”. The message from OMBH seems utterly defeatist; come the end of the consultation period, everything is lost! Not in my eyes it isn’t. On February 14th there will be disabled people ready and willing to fight on until the country “jilts” Cameron and Clegg.

    I am sick and tired of seeing the diverse community of disabled people reduced to simplistic stereotyping – we are not all happy to be portrayed as “victims” or “vulnerable” – such stereotyping plays right into the hands of the Government and Tory press. We cannot ignore the ideological attack that is taking place therefore it is vital to offer a well thought through political response not one simply designed to pull at people’s heart strings.

  4. Lex says:

    @Bob Williams-Findlay, ok, perhaps I should have said “non party political” as BendyGirl and FunkyFairy22 were keen for it not to be seen as a a Pro-Labour campaign. After all they did introduce Atos etc in the first place (not that that in any way excuses the Tories)

    My personal feeling is that the OMBH campaigners aren’t defeatist and will continue to fight, whatever happens on Feb 14, though obviously you are perfectly free to believe otherwise.

    I agree that a well thought out political response would be a great advantage. I have been trying to argue against the reforms financially. That it is likely to actually cost more money. However it’s hard getting people to listen. I have tried using the example of support for carers, £53 pw Carers Allowance v thousands if someone has to go into residential care.

    I agree that a lot of disabled people will be unhappy as being thought of as vulnerable or victims, however some feel that they are. There is space for both ideas, I feel.

    On the video that Tim kindly provided a link to Kevin Maguire and Johann Hari did seem to think that we needed the “human interest” angle to capture the wider publics attention. I understand your desire to not foster the patronising attitudes so often displayed by the public. However those in the media seem to think that a bit tugging at the heart strings is what’s needed to get the rest of the world to take notice. I don’t know, it’s a dilemma isn’t it?

    Sue Marsh over on her blog has made a post about this. A sort of damned if we do damned if we don’t.

    “If we’re humble, we’re victims
    If we’re angry, we’re aggressive”

    @Tim, thanks for the video, it was very interesting.

    • @Lex, my pleasure. I loved your comments on Laurie Penny’s article today.

      @Bob Williams-Findlay, I need to spend time looking at the DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts) website http://disabledpeopleprotest.wordpress.com/ of which I believe you are one of the founders. It looks as if you have a lot of discussion going on already about virtual protest which I would like to read in detail.

      I understand that dilemma of the right tone to take.

      Perhaps one can find a third way?

      The key to getting the larger media interested is to find an emotional angle but no one is saying that the angle has to be pity.

      May I suggest you take a look at a story here:
      http://www.latentexistence.me.uk/my-dad-working-through-the-pain/

      Steven Sumpter (aka Latentexistence) is not asking for pity for his father or for himself – but it’s an incredibly powerful story that shows how useful the DLA can be and one other way in which its loss would be terrible.

      “It is DLA which has enabled him to work. Without it, he would not have a car, and without a car he would not have been able to travel to any of his jobs.”

      The sad truth is that when you start talking about DLA, people who do not receive it and do not know what it is glaze over in the same way when a geek starts using computer jargon and three-letter acronyms.

      Just hearing a three-letter acronym makes people switch off and think that the story is going to be boring.

      We need to make DLA alive for people. But that needn’t be by asking people to play the victim.

      Just my thoughts.

      I’d also like to extend an invite to both of you to contribute to this site if you like.

      @Lex, might you be interested in helping to compile a list of useful resources, starting with those in the comments in Laurie Penny’s article? I can give you a guest post in which to do so (or I’ll happily write it and credit you as the researcher if you don’t feel happy about writing it.)

      @Bob Williams-Findlay, would you like a post to explain the work of DPAC and explain what technical things you are using to organise online, and what tools you would like to see but which are missing? I’m sure there are plenty of software engineers and web developers who would be delighted to help share their expertise in building tools: they just don’t know that the need exists.

      • @Lex, on reflection, that was a little rude of me. I’ve assumed from the fact that you don’t link to a blog that you might not want to like to write an opinion post or call for ideas and that is wrong of me. Please accept my apology.

        If you have an idea for a post of around 600 words that would be appropriate to the theme of this site, I’d be very happy to post it under your name. I’ve enjoyed your comments here and elsewhere so I know you’d write a good one! Indeed if you do have a blog elsewhere please don’t feel shy to link to it when you comment.

  5. Lex says:

    @Tim, no apologies necessary. I don’t have a blog but would be more than happy to help in any way I can. Thank you very much for the offer.

    Just let me know the kind of things you’re looking for, I can either try to hunt out links to stats or sources or try to write something if you like.

    I haven’t used my twitter account in ages but I’ll fire it back up again tomorrow and find you on there. I’ll let you know it’s me.

  6. Bob Williams-Findlay says:

    Without getting into the “modernist versus post modernist” debate, there is a need to avoid the world of stark choices where the baby is thrown out along with the bathwater. When journalist talk about “human interest stories” I often smile because this usually ends up as a request for stories which can be fitted into traditional “news frames” – frames which tend to stereotype disabled people as either “tragic” or “brave”. Sadly, if disabled people fail to conform to these stereotpes, then they are not considered ‘newsworthy’ and therefore remain absent or ‘constructed’ by third parties.

    How do we cut through this? In my opinion new media could provide a door by enabling disabled people to ‘tell their own stories’ and in the process take back from the mass media and political parties the defining of what constitutes “human interest”.

    At this moment in time all three major political parties are using people with impairments’ bodies as an ideological battle ground when it comes to determining the future direction of the welfare state. I would personally argue that not since the end of the 19th century has the ‘impaired body’ been subjected to the ‘public gaze’ in such an ideological fashion. It was at this moment, I would suggest, that the dominant approach to seeing ‘disability as tragedy’ was crystalised. Since then disabled people have sought to shift the focus away from our ‘bodies’ as the cause of disability and to centre instead on the social restrictions caused by the nature of society itself. I have no regrets in taking such a political stance, but it is clear that the current struggle requires us to acknowledge the realities of living with an impairment but at the same time opposing the dominant tragedy approach.

    If you accept, as I do, that the experience of disability arises from the negative interactions between people with impairments and their social environments – then technology can play a major role in ‘bringing this reality’ to life by exposing it, offering solutions and demonstrating the ability of technology to both enable and disable people with impairments.

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