Thursday, 6 September 2012

Disability Advocacy and Social Media

Today I've been thinking about social media and how powerful it is it is for advocacy workers. Disability advocacy workers especially!

Not About Disability Advocacy, But Bear With Me

When I was 10 or 11, I was very concerned about environmental issues. Specifically, I was concerned about endangered species, and the rate at which species of plants and animals were becoming extinct. I was so concerned that I wrote a letter to the then-Prime Minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney, telling him about how I thought that the Canadian government needed to take action to make sure that as many species got moved off the list as quickly as possible.

I did get a response - the typical form-letter response about how the Prime Minister had read my letter and how my concerns would be taken into consideration, on the official letterhead with the rubber-stamped signature. I was thrilled at the time, even though it probably got no closer to Brian Mulroney than the desk of his Assistant to the Assistant in Charge of Mail from Children (or something like get my meaning.) I still have the letter somewhere.

In just 25 years, we've gone from that being the closest that I could get to giving feedback to my country's leader, to having my blog post about Mitt Romney's RNC speech ending up on the US President's Google+ page, because someone who read my blog thought that he should see it.  Stuart MacKenzie on Google+ commented on a photo on Obama's page:  "You would do well to check out +Girl With The Cane . What are you going to do for people with disabilities?"

Social Media and Disability Advocacy

Now, I'm not so naive that I think that just because a link to my blog ended up on Obama's Google+ wall that he's ever going to see it, let alone read what I have to say.  He's likely got a team dedicated to social media strategic planning and the day-to-day implementation and monitoring of that plan (let's face it...he has to). Like Mulroney and his mail back in the day, I'd think that he only sees a carefully chosen sample of what's out there.

But there's a lot of power in just having that access to our leaders - through Facebook, through Twitter, through Google+, through contact forms on websites. It may still be filtered, but it's instantaneous, and it's accessible to anyone with Internet access and the skills to use social media, and it's entirely changing the landscape for how politicians and public figures of all kinds interact with their supporters and detractors. It has implications for all people that use the internet because, as remote as the chance of someone who can do something with what we've put out there might seem, there's always a chance that they might - a much better chance than there used to be, when all you could do was send a letter. Disability advocacy workers need to learn to use this to their advantage.

Take disability advocacy workers over in Britain fighting welfare benefit reform, for example. Sue Marsh and other members of the Spartacus team have used social media to build an entire movement of people protesting catastrophic budget cuts to services with disabilities. Most of the group's members are too ill to do much disability advocacy outside their homes. I see much of their strategizing go on over Twitter, with more sustained and specific planning going on in a web forum, their blogs acting as platforms for the group's message. This is not a small group of people talking amongst themselves. They are responsible for producing the Spartacus report, a document about the needs of people with disabilities in Britain that was submitted to the government, and Sue Marsh is regularly interviewed in British media about Spartacus and it's work.  Spartacus is a force to be reckoned with, and it galvanized itself as a disability advocacy movement, got itself out into the public's face and gathered support using social media and the opportunities that grew from using it effectively.  I'm sure that links Sue's blog, and that of the other major Spartacus name, Kaliya Franklin, have ended up in the email of British politicians many times over the last couple of years.

Disability Advocacy is Great, But Don't Forget Self-Advocacy

Tuesday night I was one of many people who tweeted my displeasure to CNN Political Contributor Erick Ericson when he referred to the Democratic National Convention as "The Vagina Monologues". I'm not a computer genius. Some of the teens with intellectual disabilities that I used to support were very good with computers. One of them used to brag to me that he knew how to get around not being able to access Facebook on his school's computers (to which I always said, "Please don't tell me how...I don't want to be able to answer questions about that.")  There's no reason why a person like that, obviously with more than a basic grasp of computers and Internet and experience with social media, couldn't incorporate social media use into self-advocacy:

  • A tweet to Goodwill's Twitter account about his feelings about people with disabilities getting paid below minimum wage.
  • Signing an online petition to protest a law that discriminates against people with disabilities.
  • Starting a blog about life with a disability, as Sarah Ely has about living with Down's Syndrome

Obviously people with intellectual disabilities in particular may need training and perhaps support to ensure that they're remaining as safe as possible on the Internet (heck, there are a lot of adults without intellectual  disabilities out there that could benefit from these things) while doing disability advocacy or self-advocacy. The Internet can be a scary place, and everyone needs to know how to be safe.

But I think that it's also a very exciting place for disability advocacy workers and self-advocates. We should learn to use it to our maximum advantage, and to teach others who wish to use it for disability advocacy and self-advocacy to do so as well.

After all...the Internet isn't going away, is it?

A post I did on Internet safety for people with intellectual disabilities:

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