The effects of ICT4D in Disability Activism

Disability Activism

In my previous blog posts, the emphasis was on the role and impact of social media, viral campaigns, hashtags and mobile applications in the context of digital activism. In my final post of this series, however, I will focus on disability activism and how it is influenced by ICT4D, while elaborating on some of the main points previously addressed and including some of the extracts of several interviews conducted with members of disability activism in Spain.

SOCIAL REALITY AND DISABILITY – A REMAINING INEQUALITY

Large crises can produce unpredictable anger, collective mobilization, protest, and large political changes.” (Ancelovici et al., 2016, p. 43)

According to The World Report on Disability published by the World Health Organization and the World Bank, over one billion people around the world have functional diversity. Up until today, statistical data shows inequality for people with functional diversity in every aspect of life.

According to The International Convention of Rights for People with functional diversity approved by the United Nations Convention, concepts such as participation, autonomy, independence and integration on all social levels must be guaranteed for people with disabilities. These principles include the accessibility to Information and Communication Technologies. Woefully, the Convention principles are still not put into practice.

Lucas Platero, researcher on intersectionality policy frames and editor of “Intersections: bodies and sexualities at the crossroad”, affirms that: “The most important barriers are social and attitudinal. People with functional diversity are not taken seriously. They are still treated as Sub-humans”. (Lucas Platero, interview, 2020). Eduardo and Rodrigo Gonzalez, students of the Center for the recuperation of people with physical disabilities (CRMF) in Madrid, declare that: “For the ones like us who are kept on the social edge, access to education or the labor market is much more complicated”. In fact, statistics published by the Employment of People with Disabilities (EPD) reveal that the Law 13/1982 of Social Integration for people with disabilities (LISMI) is still not applied either.

Be the change
Be the Change: Why the Resistance Must Be Accessible. Photo by Carrie at Autostraddle

Victor Ramos y Moisés Escobar, members of the socio-labor service working at the CRMF, declare that: ” Concerning employment, there is a clear inequality. In the end, we achieve the opposite of what we promise.” (Ramos & Escobar, interview, 2020). The neoliberal and capitalist discourse of economic growth model and maximum productivity is one of the root causes for the systematic discrimination of the collective, labeling a person with a disability as a “disabled” person and thus unable to contribute to this capitalist model.

In addition to this, physical barriers frequently prevent people with functional diversity to participate, access and engage in multiple aspects of the society. This inaccessibility contributes to the current shrinking of civic space for civil society participation. Carmen Sancho, activist for disability rights, affirms that: “Sometimes it is about very simple things, but those barriers can nullify your autonomy. Everything is about goodwill and consciousness.”, (Carmen Sancho, interview, 2020).

Jesús Faucha, an employee of Centre of State Reference for Personal Autonomy and Technical Aid in Madrid (CEAPAT) adds affordability to the concept of accessibility, highlighting that “Everything that appears together with the word “disabled” makes these products overpriced. And not everyone has access to grants or annual subsidies.”, (Jesús Faucha, interview, 2020).

THE USE OF DIGITAL PLATFORMS IN DISABILITY ACTIVISM

To explain the marginalization that people with functional diversity face worldwide, members of disability activism argue that the social image of functional diversity is determinant on this global inequality. Chavia Ali, president of the Cultural Forum for people with special needs in Syria, declares that “Everything depends on how we are looking at Functional Diversity. There are many social stereotypes and these are due to a wrong interpretation because of a lack of knowledge and information.”, (Chavia Ali, interview, 2020).

In light of this, new forms of activism have emerged with the emergence of ICTs, bringing new spaces of public discourse for people with disabilities to participate and interact in new ways. At present, members of disability activism are representing functional diversity in a new and decentralized manner using digital activism to embed new narratives that give the collective a full legitimization and recognition as subjects of civil and human rights.

Thus, social media, viral campaigns, hashtags and mobile applications are reframing the idea of diversity from a positive perspective dodging the victimization and differentiation of the collective from the rest of the society.

Online platforms are becoming tools for members of disability activism to find new forms of participatory interaction to fight inequality and ableism. In particular, activists with functional diversity are connecting transnationally to articulate their voices through cyberspace, setting functional diversity at the center of the debate and agenda.

PRACTICAL IMPLEMENTATION OF ICT4D IN DISABILITY ACTIVISM

The representation of disability has been traditionally associated with negative and discriminatory stereotypes. Responding to this deep crisis of representation, digital disability activism is developing a new discourse through online platforms such as social media sites to build a social construction that will defy discriminatory stereotypes and defend the full emancipation of the collective.

This new visibility accomplished through social media platforms can be contextualized within what Charlotte and Philippo (2015) appoint as the “new media ecology”, which refers to the rise of digital media platforms that offer the possibility of actors and previously marginalized groups to acquire visibility in the public arena, (Pearson & Trevisan, 2015, p. 925). Consequently, social media interconnectedness and disembodied resonance is offering members of disability activism opportunities to interact, network and engage in public speech across large distances.

Through online activism, people with functional diversity are redesigning and adapting online spaces to challenge dominant power relations and discourses in social structures that perpetuate inequality. This embedded collective action refers to the potential of ICT4D for a transformative intervention towards social justice and human development, (Walsham, 2017, p.19).

find your voice
Graphic of a young person using a bullhorn to express Find Your Voice. Photo from Community & Civic Life

The social media campaign launched under the hashtags #IAmUnstoppable and #BeUnstoppable is an example of the potentialities of ICT4D to mobilize public support, change public perceptions and promote equality.

#BeUnstoppable campaign was launched to raise disability awareness and diffuse information to change social perceptions regarding disability. Through images and short texts, the bloggers shared their own experiences and stories to account for the discrimination and stereotypes they face every day, (Cocq & Ljuslinder, 2020, p. 4).

A SHIFTING NATURE OF ACTIVISM

“Media are perceived as central to a societal understanding of disability (…) if we as the audience are exposed to pathologizing stories of people with disabilities, this will probably also become our own perception of what disability entails”, (Cocq & Ljuslinder, 2020, p. 3).

In the current setting, new digital platforms are bringing innovative ways of collective participation and action for development and social change to address inequality and improve the social conditions of people with functional diversity. As a result, ICT4D are shifting the nature of activism, combating normative assumptions of disability and the hegemonic and unequal power structures of society.

On the other hand, although the impact and implementation of ICT-related resources is “context-dependent” (Murphy & Carmody, 2015, p.52) and imbued with the norms, prejudices and power relations of the surrounding culture (O’Donnell & Sweetman, 2018, p.224), ICT4D are being used to amplify debates regarding disability, reaching a bigger audience with transnational potential for impact.

Nowadays, disability activists are using new media practices and platforms both in the Global North and the Global South, “highlighting persistent power imbalances and remaining development challenges” (Denskus, 2019) while aiming for a change in the social reality and a boost in the outreach of the messages communicated.

Another example of digital disability activism in practice is the “Forum for Independent Living and Divertad (FVID). The forum is an open, free and mediated space of horizontal dialogue for people with and without functional diversity. The forum is another example of how new digital communication technologies are changing the way in which people connect and communicate, “enabling otherwise unconnected individuals to interact”, (Hepp et al., 2018, p. 173).

CIVIC PARTICIPATION AND SELF-REPRESENTATION IN DIGITAL DISABILITY ACTIVISM

The digital presence of disability activism invites its members to challenge the classifying and oppressive norm that pathologizes, silences and makes invisible people with functional diversity.

In particular, the rise in the participation of social media campaigns by disability activists have the potentiality to produce a substantial turn in the society’s glance around people with functional diversity. This new identity construction aims to change the traditional-hegemonic pathologizing discourse regarding disability, offering an alternative or counter-discourse where activists represent themselves not as patients but as social actors and proactive agents of change.

ICT4D has become an empowering tool through which this counter-narrative changes the social perception of people with disabilities and challenges “the medical model of disability that portrays disability as an illness that must be cured”, (Cocq & Ljuslinder, 2020, p.8). At the same time, members of disability activism promote civic participation throughout these new digital communication platforms, while “transforming individual members into collective actors with agency, who are networked and bonded together”, (Graham, 2019, p.336).

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN AND ICT4D

“It will be the poorest and most marginalized who will be last to access and benefit from ICTs.”, (O’Donnell & Sweetman, 2018, p. 119).

As Tim Unwin states (2016) this new type of online participatory democracy and autonomous cultural spaces (ibid, 2016, p.83) have its own challenges and limitations.

There are plenty of different factors that exclude people with disabilities. These involve not just economical or attitudinal aspects but also technological, among others. To mention a few, accessibility and capability or digital literacy are two elements that can position people in a certain power scale, perpetuating inequality and social exclusion for people with functional diversity.

In addition, as Graham declares (2019) many people living in well-connected areas cannot afford such connectivity or are prevented from using the Internet for their empowerment, such as people with disabilities, who are “widely forgotten”, (ibid, 2019, p.44).

Adding to these challenges, it is important to mention that new media fails to represent the voices of disability activism in traditional media platforms, which often continues reproducing prejudices and stereotypes regarding disability.

EFFECTIVENESS AND ICT4D

“Only when more technologies are designed and utilized effectively and explicitly in the interests of the poor and the marginalized may the aspiration of a more equal and thus better society be achieved.”, (Unwin, 2017, p.23).

Following Unwin´s statement (2017), the effectiveness of ICT4D depends on their capability to focus on a people-centric and not economic growth approach that is based on the needs, interests and contexts of the people with functional diversity. To do so, it is important to develop innovative and accessible digital infrastructures that will work with the people and not for the people, involving them in the design and implementation of these new technologies, (ibid, 2017, p. 3).

Unfortunately, the design and interests behind the functioning of these new platforms are often exclusionary rather than inclusive. As O’Donnell and Sweetman appoints, (2018) “Technology mirrors the societies that create it and access to it”, (ibid., 2018, p. 217). In addition, “ICTs tend to be productivity biased, skill biased, and voice biased”, (Graham, 2019, p.22).

Consequently, for ICT4D to be effective, they ought to be implemented, through inclusive structures and design processes, as empowering tools that support the principles of emancipation, autonomy and freedom for people with disabilities, leading to positive change and development.

The mobile app “EasenAccess” is another example of a new ICT for development created in 2016 in India that was developed to empower people with functional diversity. EasenAccess is a free app that supports people with disabilities on their autonomy and freedom of movement, assuring access to information and communication services. The app counts with a supporting messaging network through chat apps and social media groups where users can also provide their feedback. More about it can be found here.

blog disability thinking
Blog disability thinking – Disability Activism

A NEW ERA OF DISABILITY ACTIVISM

Although it is essential to keep in mind the limitations of new digital platforms, there are many positive benefits in the use of ICT4D, such as “the opportunity to communicate development differently through new forms of navigating digital content”, (Denskus, 2019).

Facing the fact that “cultural assumptions are influenced by the representations we are exposed to” (Cocq & Ljuslinder, 2020, p.1), the possibility for activists to themselves through ICT4D, enables the potential outcome of a change in the concept of disability and a challenge of the hegemonic and ableist discourse, defeating concepts traditionally attributed to people with functional diversity such as dehumanization and infantilization.

The shared narrative of disability activism spread through online platforms represents people with functional diversity as active agents of social change and not as victims. Thus, the horizontal exchanges and interactions made through ICT4D have the potentiality to include symbols, practices, new meanings and representations that can lead to equality, visibility, development and social justice.

CONCLUDING REFLECTIONS

New media, ICT and Development has provided me with a much broader vision on the potentialities and limitations of new ICTs for development and social change than I had before the course. Parallelly, Activism Through the Senses has shown me a new horizon of how digital communication processes and new communication technologies can influence information dissemination, organization, networking and social impact when addressing online and offline activism.

Through the categorization of the senses, this exercise has taught me the potentialities of new digital media to offer new tools for social inclusion and civic participation, as well as for any information to be disseminated and heard far beyond any limit.

Focusing on activism campaigns both located in the Global North and the Global South, this exercise has provided me with a critical analysis view of how dominant discourses and representations can be challenged through alternative media and new digital tools.

As Hepp et al. appoints (2018), with the spread of technology-based communication media across all domains of society, our social construction of reality is changing (ibid, 2018, p.16) and there is no just one solution for transforming ICT4D to create a fairer and less unequal world, (Unwin, 2017, p.83).

Agreeing with the necessity of moving away from over privileging technology and connectivity as primary agents of change (Graham, 2019, p.14), I believe it is necessary to focus instead on liberating people from structural inequalities, approaching emancipation and empowerment (rather than economic growth) when talking about ICT4D.

Connecting with the main topic of this academic post, I interpret the potentialities of online platforms, when referring to disability activism, as a medium to challenge the traditional socio-cultural normative discourse. On the contrary, ICT4D offers counter-narratives that fight the unequal power structures and inequalities that people with functional diversity face.

However, are these social structures and power relations changing in effect? As Walsham mentions (2017), the current world remains one of striking inequity, despite major advances in many areas including that of technology. Hence, there is a need for some solid research as to what exactly are the effects of these ICT-enabled models, to identify the socio-political transformation, (Walsham, 2017, p. 37).

Ultimately, it is important to keep in mind that: “the challenges remain to work toward diverse, participatory, and inclusive societies that can live up to the promise and potential of digital tools and social media”, (Denskus, 2019).

 

References

Ancelovici, M, Dufour P. and Nez, H. (eds.) 2016: Street Politics in the Age of Austerity-From the Indignados to Occupy, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Carmen Sancho, personal interview, February 2020

Charlotte Pearson & Filippo Trevisan (2015) Disability activism in the new media ecology: campaigning strategies in the digital era, Disability & Society, 30:6, 924-940, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2015.1051516

Chavia Ali, personal interview, February 2020

Cocq, C., & Ljuslinder, K. (2020). Self-representations on social media. Reproducing and challenging discourses on disability. Alter – European Journal of Disability Research, Revue Européenne de Recherche Sur Le Handicap. https://doi-org.proxy.mau.se/10.1016/j.alter.2020.02.001

Denskus, T. 2019/2021: Social media and peacebuilding (Links to an external site.), in: Romaniuk, S.N., Thapa, M. and Péter Marton: The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Global Security Studies. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021. Retrieved from: https://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007/978-3-319-74336-3

Denskus, T. 2019: Blogging and curating content as strategies to diversify discussions and communicate development differently. Aidnography, Retrieved from: http://aidnography.blogspot.com/2019/12/blogging-curating-globaldev-content-diversify-communicate-development-differently.html.

Geoff Walsham (2017) ICT4D research: reflections on history and future agenda, Information Technology for Development, 23:1, 18-41, DOI: 10.1080/02681102.2016.1246406

Graham, M. (ed.) 2019: Digital Economies at Global Margins (Links to an external site.). Ottawa, ON/Boston, MA: IDRC/MIT Press.

Hepp, A., Breiter, A., Hasebrink, U. (eds.) 2018: Communicative Figurations: Transforming Communications in Times of Deep Mediatization (Links to an external site.). London: Palgrave.

Jesús Faucha, personal interview, February 2020

Lucas Platero, personal interview, February 2020

Murphy, J.T. and Carmody, P. 2015: Africa’s Information Revolution-Technical Regimes and Production Networks in South Africa and Tanzania (Links to an external site.). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

O’Donnell, A. & Sweetman, C. 2018: Introduction: Gender, development and ICTs (Links to an external site.), Gender & Development, 26:2, 217-229.

Unwin, T. 2017: Reclaiming Information & Communication Technologies for Development (Links to an external site.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Victor Ramos y Moisés Escobar, personal interview, February 2020

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