We are all a bit skittish about the internet these days. There’s shady data collection, “fake news,” and the addictive qualities of social media to contend with, not to mention the emotional toll that online life can take when it turns sour.
And yet, disabled people still find friendship, empowerment, and vibrant community online. Traditional methods of social support and community-building have advantages, and not everyone can access the internet easily. Some people just don’t like the internet and never will. But the internet has undeniably supercharged disability culture. It’s increasingly impractical to be active in the disability community now without at least some use of the internet.
Here, then, are some tips for disabled people on how to make the most, and avoid the worst, of disability online:
Engage thoughtfully, and take care of yourself.
There is no single “Disability Community” online; there are dozens. Disability on the internet comes in all flavors: encouraging, empowering, inspirational, funny, angry, demanding, hurt, optimistic or pessimistic, secular or religious, liberal or conservative. There are communities for every kind of disability, and for disabled people with intersecting identities and interests related to race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, class, and more.
Most online disability discussions are friendly, and most disability debates are civil. Still, you will run into people and ideas that rub you the wrong way, even offend you. Keep an open mind. When something puzzles or upsets you, explore it. Ask questions. But in the end, if you find something impossible to digest, remember that it’s okay to have your say and then move on. It’s not your job to convince everyone.
Note too that when you interact online with something that makes you upset, you are essentially voting to see more of it. That’s how social media platforms like Facebook work. That may be fine with you. It’s important to know about disturbing events and injustices. But if you start to find it all too overwhelming, think twice before angrily sharing and commenting on every ableist thing you see.
Be clear about what you are looking for.
You might be looking for friendship, supportive conversation, intellectual debate, humor, awareness, motivation, inspiration, career opportunities … even fame! There are no right or wrong reasons. The key is to be self-aware and truthful about it. State your goals, interests, and affiliations upfront in your social media profiles. Tell people honestly and without judgment what you do and don’t want to talk about. Above all, don’t hide your true motivations, or pretend to be someone you are not.
Respect the conversations you are in.
Activism, emotional support, and practical advice make for vastly different kinds of conversations that are still often confused and mistaken for one another. Plus, hard as it can be to accept, some conversations are just not meant for you … no matter how brilliant your observations on the subject might seem.
You can participate in more than one kind of conversation. But do your best to keep track of which is which, adjust your tone and approach accordingly, and don’t barge into other people’s spaces.
Choose your “friends” carefully.
Before “friending” or “following,” someone, ask yourself why. Is it for personal friendship, shared interest, or professional connections? Do you want to connect with people who share your interests, including strangers, or only with people you already know?
Speaking of which, distant relatives and old friends from school can be a mixed bag. They’re fun to reconnect with, but that nice kid who sat in front of you in math class may have changed since then, in surprising and upsetting ways. Have a look at what they post before you “friend” them, and don’t be afraid to disconnect if someone starts getting on your nerves. Ableism exists everywhere. It can come when you least expect it, and from “friends” just as often as from opponents and trolls.
Know your trolls.
Some people on the internet do more than simply disagree; they want to upset you. These “trolls” consider it a “win” if they make you freak out. If you ignore them at the start, most trolls will back off and seek conflict elsewhere. “Don’t feed the trolls!” is a little simplistic, but it’s also kind of true.
Some trolls will also try to make you feel weak or irrational for being upset by what they say. This is known as “gaslighting.” It’s when someone deliberately taunts and insults you, and then blames you for losing your cool. Don’t fall for it! Follow your instincts about how much aggravation or abuse you’ll put up with.
Don’t lean too hard on the internet for your social life.
The internet can be an important source of friendship and support, especially for disabled people who encounter barriers to face-to-face socializing. Online communication can be rich and rewarding. But it can also be superficial and gossipy. Keep that in mind, and try not to gauge your self-worth solely on your current social media “popularity,” or lack of it.
The internet is both a microphone and a community for people with disabilities. A bit of boundary-setting and self-care can make both work better for you.