#Ferguson; #ICan’tBreathe; #BringBackOurGirls; #YesAllWomen; if you’ve frequented social media at all in recent weeks, and in particular within the past year, any or all of the above hashtags will likely have flitted across your Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr timeline at least once. From the protests surrounding the shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, to the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram, to the world-wide grief and outrage over the Charlie Hebdo attack, Twitter hashtags have, like much of the Internet, created a virtual global space in which people can unite to spread news and information, to encourage, to grieve, and to show solidarity. Yet one hashtag has, not surprisingly given recent international events, received far less attention, though it likely wouldn’t have garnered much even on a slow news day.
Like most of the social media-addicted world, I spent a part of my New Year’s Day 2015 scrolling through the myriad of Internet activism-related hashtags interspersed with tweets about well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions. As I prepared to slam the lid of my laptop shut and abandon Twitter for the pre-Internet delight of reading a book, I paused over a hashtag that I had previously never seen: #StopAbleism2015. Like many of the hashtags that have received media attention within the past year, #StopAbleism2015 has a focused mission to spread awareness about disability discrimination and how to end such discrimination. Tweets sent under this hashtag range from statistics about mental illness to stories of cab drivers refusing to pick up a passenger traveling with a service animal.
In“The Case for Social Media and Hashtag Activism, Sabina Khan-Ibarra writes that “Individuals with certain disabilities, caretakers, and those with young children can be involved with activism and not be limited by their inability to physically mobilize. This gives opportunities to highlight that which was previously unheard and unseen—making the voices we hear more diverse and a more true reflection of reality.” In simplest terms, people tweeting under the hashtag #StopAbleism2015 have used their stories to put an abstract concept into clear, and often heart-wrenchingly concrete language. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, ableism refers to discrimination against people with disabilities, but how do we identify patterns of ableist behavior in others (or even in our own actions) if we don’t know what it looks like? While I have all too often been on the receiving end of malicious, intentional discrimination because of my disability, I have found that, more often than not, ableism is born less of hatred than of ignorance. The commuter sitting beside me on the bus who notices my guidedog at my feet and asks, “What’s wrong with you?” is expressing, albeit tactlessly, curiosity about my disability and what my service animal does for me. (Side note: many service animal handlers consider it invasively rude to ask what their service animals do, not because they don’t have the desire to educate the public, but because very often disability results from any number of physically and emotionally painful experiences ranging from car accidents to cancer. So before you get too curious, consider how you’d feel discussing with a stranger at the bus stop what it was like to lose your vision because of a brain tumor.)Assuming that my fellow commuter has never before encountered someone with a service animal, in her curiosity about my dog and her uncertainty about how to broach the subject, she unwittingly addresses me with ableist language. To ask what is “wrong” with me implies that I am in some way flawed or defective, which carries greater implications about my ability to be a productive citizen: to perform labor, to live independently, to maintain healthy, fulfilling relationships. Technically and medically speaking, the only thing “wrong” about me is the fact that my sense of sight is limited to the ability to detect light and shadows, but there is nothing inherently wrong about me as a human being.
Many people with disabilities, myself included, can recite a litany of amusing stories about questions they’ve received from curious people, like the person who asked one of my friends if her guidedog helps her cook. Then there are the stories that reveal the harmful and often irreversible damage that ableism inflicts. Here are just a few examples of the stories that #StopAbleism2015 has motivated people to share:
All too often, in conversations about discrimination, disability seems like the music being piped through the speakers at the local coffee shop: just-discernable background noise. #StopAbleism2015 seems an attempt to amplify the voices of people with disabilities. The criticism that the trend has received stems from the notion that, as several people have argued to me, the hashtag isn’t about activism; it’s about raising awareness for basic human rights. Yet raising awareness to call for social or political change is at the heart of any form of activism. The objection is, paradoxically, ableist in its own way; it suggests that we cannot categorize #StopAbleism2015 as the beginning of a movement, because, simply put, the participants aren’t mobilizing; they are simply affirming the prevalence of ableism through statements that express anger, sadness, and frustration about the treatment we receive at the hands of society. Unfortunately, if you peruse the collection of #StopAbleism2015 hashtags, this negativity becomes quite evident. . Helen Keller once famously declared, “Self-pity is our worst enemy, and if we yield to it, we can never do anything wise in this world.” Our collective righteous indignation at the prevalence of ableism in society can only carry us so far, and yet, we must begin somewhere. As Khan-Ibarra points out, hashtag activism allows those who cannot “mobilize” to use their voices as vehicles of change.
As much as I insist that my disability doesn’t entirely define me, it nevertheless makes up an integral part of my being; since I lost my sight due to a genetic condition, it is imprinted on my body, written in my DNA as surely as the color of my hair or the shape of my face. It is a part of the story I tell every day, impacting the ways that I can (and cannot) use my body. Some of the stories that people have taken to Twitter to share under the #StopAbleism2015 hashtag are humorous; some are sad; some make me want to hurl things at the wall in anger and frustration; all are deeply personal, a testament to the fact that we are human, with a basic human right to be treated equally. In a world where people with disabilities encounter various degrees of challenges navigating their environments, the Internet is (increasingly, if not absolutely) a space that we can navigate with relative ease, so it should come as little surprise that the disabled community has embraced Twitter as a medium for raising our voices in this demand for equality.
Set against the backdrop of the hashtag activism that has taken the Web by storm, #StopAbleism2015 seems hardly a movement of any great magnitude, but it takes tremendous courage to share some of the stories that have been told, and those who choose to lend their voices to the conversation should be commended. Will #StopAbleism2015 have the power to raise employment rates of people with disabilities, or erase the Undue Hardship clause from the Americans with Disabilities Act? Maybe; maybe not, but to quote Paul Rogat Loeb in The Impossible Will Take a Little While, “Just pushing the stone in the right direction is cause for celebration.”
Note: for a more comprehensive background of hashtag activism, check out this blog post from The Washington Post