The Guardian published an interesting story this weekend about the Internet’s impact on disability. Aleks Krotoski writes that her masters’ thesis in social psychology demonstrated two ways the web benefits people with physical disabilities:
First, the web offered personal and physical anonymity to a population that experiences a significant amount of stigma offline. In general, for people such as my participants who cannot “pass” in real-world situations the web allows them to experience an unrestricted liberty…Second, the web was described as an empowering platform, giving the participants the sense that they were in charge of their own destinies.
In the past decade, however, Krotoski has been disappointed by the lack of progress in tapping the web’s potential benefits, thanks to
a theory called the social model of disability, which says that it’s society that creates the barriers to access and equality that people with disabilities experience, rather than the disability itself. In other words, it is architecture, culture and social constraints that exclude disabled people from full participation. One of the strongest criticisms against the social model is that by hiding a physical disability, or attributing non-physical impairments to clumsiness or inattention, disabled people perpetuate a discriminatory society and reinforce the perception of personal tragedy, inefficacy and stigma. The web is the greatest passing platform of all: everyone is normal online. And so where does that leave our attitudes towards disability offline?
Krotoski’s argument raises interesting questions for all those who would romanticize the web as a “pure” social space in which we’re freed from prejudices based on race, gender, ethnicity and so on. This quality leads Internet fans to point to the anonymity of the web as one of its great strengths.
But as Krotoski points out, the web doesn’t eradicate these barriers, whether physical or social. All it does is give us (at best) a brief vacation. That’s why it’s so important that we use our online conversations to speak frankly about discrimination, bias and barrier…or better yet, to organize against them.