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Social media and disability: the good side

Kerry Martin Millan explores how online spaces can provide community and nurture confidence among creatives with disabilities

5 to 6 minute read

Writing - featuring laptop, phone, notebook, pen and coffee mug on table

Social media has become synonymous with human misery. According to Scientific American, lawsuits against Meta have suggested a correlation between teenagers’ image filtering and their developing eating disorders. Just plain social comparison, anyone?

Despite this, the disability community seems to have coalesced as an online collective. It’s not because their presence is exempt from the woes of online scams, trolling or hate comments. Really, it’s what these sites enable among the disability community that makes the difference – advocacy, friendship, work connections and widening people’s understanding. Those usual persistent, pesky social media algorithms that promote rhetoric and vitriol don’t stand a chance.

While subtle, it seems that disability as normalcy is gaining traction on various social media platforms. Blogging and journalistic site, Medium, has never endorsed discrimination against disabled creatives, and Twitter and LinkedIn seem to be following suit. Both apps are filled with creatives from all walks of life, with less of the harrassment you find on the wider internet space. 

Back in March, as part of neurodiversity awareness week, ADHD Career Coach, Nikki Hardy AACC, made a post on the statement that ‘ADHD is a superpower’. Her post amassed a wealth of comments along similar lines, which I endorsed too. It totally depends on what you’re doing as to whether ADHD is a superpower; Twitter is filled with lamentations of neurodiverse writers who struggle with structure. As one anonymous poster puts it, ‘It’s hard when many separate themes seem to become one.’  

Welcoming spaces?

I’m part of a Facebook group in Australia, called ‘Deaf, disabled, neurodiverse and chronically ill writers’. The zeitgeist of Facebook groups like this one is slowly catching on. The difference between this kind of group and others is palpable. Once, I posted a humorous article on a different Facebook writer’s group for criticism. 

‘Wow, you truly are a wordsmith,’ read one comment. ‘Oh how nice,’ I thought. ‘Yes, words… so many words. Like it goes on and on…’ The ironic twist hit me like a ton of bricks. Wow, what sarcasm. I was mortified afterwards. I didn’t pick up a pen for a week. I got over it in good time but I won’t put myself through this again.

Other advocacy groups and disabled social media founders observe a similar trend. But Facebook groups for disabled creators can provide a more welcoming space – particularly for disabled women, as Alejandra Ospina observes.

Users of these online groups mention ailments and disabilities, or even their nuances, that haven’t received wide exposure. Even some people who use wheelchairs, for example, are considered fakers when they aren’t fully paralysed.

As one anonymous ‘Deaf, disabled, neurodiverse and chronically ill writers’ user told me: ‘…So much that is published on Albinism focuses on OCA1A, or the stereotypical “all white with red eyes”, despite it not being the most common type. It led to years of self-doubt and continued frustration because people will tell me I can’t be Albino because my eyes are blue. Also, the misinformation about the related eye conditions – it’s a spectrum, some of us see well enough to drive, others need a guide dog.’

The anonymity of the internet coupled with supported self expression allows a unique safety net for people with disabilities

The anonymity of the internet coupled with supported self expression allows a unique safety net for people with disabilities to speak up. Honesty is what attracted me the most to this environment. I’m a sharer so I flock to these things. But online I’m still treated like a valid member of society and a fully functioning solutions journalist, not some kind of fringe-dwelling neurodiverse exile.

Mindful awareness

Carly Findlay is an Australian disability advocate who uses her voice to educate and empower people about visible disabilities. The author of Say Hello runs her own eponymous blog about having ichthyosis. One heartfelt post, entitled ‘Using social media to educate children about facial differences’, was inspired by two children at a petrol station claiming they were scared of her because of the way she looked.

What would she tell parents of overly curious kids?

‘Use social media for good. Follow and engage with lots of people who don’t look like you, and show your children too. Social media can be cruel, but this is a great way to encourage kindness.’

‘Deaf, disabled, neurodiverse and chronically ill writers’ has been empowering to say the least. When I’m online, I’m rubbing up against successful activists, authors and other creatives. The willingness of participants to reach out and engage creates mindful awareness. The amount of work I’ve procured as a writer has been surprising. Now, I’ve secured semi-regular work thanks to a contact I’ve made. Scrolling for writing gigs, I’ve been exposed to film opportunities, diverse modelling, arts jobs, writer’s workshops, disabled creatives who run businesses and eminent disability activists.

The only downside of being in this group is being amongst so many high achievers but facing a lot of writing rejection. As a result, I sometimes experience feelings of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria – a common problem for neurodiverse people. However, this is an issue that comes with using social media for broader empowerment, rather than one’s own gain. LinkedIn is still suffering a legacy of narcissism, where entrepreneurs often don’t share the blood, sweat and tears, and even money that has gone into their success. Conversely, disabled creatives often mention the pain, the suffering, and the hard work that goes with their projects and their disabilities, translating into viewer understanding.

In one of Findlay’s blog posts, ‘A note on jealousy,’ she politely outlines the sacrifices that went into authorship after someone posted they were ‘so jealous’ she’d become a published author. 

Unfortunately, positive use of social media is a little insular. It’d be great to have more social media groups for specific disabled creatives and corresponding writer’s feedback groups for those who struggle. These groups provide insight into people’s conditions, educate others with disabilities as well as society at large, and allow users to tell their own stories.

Kerry Martin Millan is a disability, health and wellness writer based in Australia

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