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Identity and Representation in the 2017 Disability March

Talea Anderson


In order to study the narratives presented in the Disability March, this webtext uses techniques of close and distant reading. Close readings are used to consider individual profiles while distant reading is used to point out larger patterns across the entire protest. By close reading, this webtext refers to the tradition of the 20th-century American New Critics and Russian formalists, who were attentive to word choice, syntax, and connotations as they analyzed individual texts. Distant reading, by contrast, refers to the techniques popularized by Franco Moretti (2013) as a means of visualizing larger patterns in literature through graphs, maps, and trees. This technique is productive for unearthing patterns in large amounts of data, as demonstrated by Derek Mueller (2012) as well as Jason Palmeri and Ben McCorkle (2017). For both of these studies, distant reading allowed the authors to trace "linkages across an assortment of people, places, things, and moments" (Mueller, 2012). As a result, the authors were able to challenge ideas gleaned from limited case studies and point out the ways that disciplines as a whole evolved over time.

Techniques of both close and distant reading appear throughout this study because, as Douglas Eyman (2015) showed in his overview of methods and practices in digital rhetoric, the affordances of one method are often the limitations of the other. A key contention by disability rights activists is that no one trope or experience can be interpreted as the full representation of disability. As such, close readings on a select set of profiles might obscure other experiences within the Disability March. Distant reading is incorporated in this study in an attempt to capture more patterns within profiles and show the echoes between the Disability March and the literature about how disability has often been represented over time. In addition, this webtext also attends to the usability and accessibility of the Disability March website. This layer of analysis is meant to capture a more complete view of the rhetorics at work in this digital space as well as the users and systems involved in the creation of it (Eyman, 2015).

To make distant readings possible for the Disability March, the images and text on the website were first scraped using the GNU wget command, which initiated a recursive download that followed links and retrieved files on the website. Essentially, the GNU wget command allows for the creation of a mirrored version of a website for offline analysis. Recursive downloading means that the wget command will follow links as they appear on webpages and additionally download linked webpages. In forming the wget command, it is possible to limit the extent to which recursion happens. In this case, only top-level webpages created for individual profiles were of interest. Additional commands were used to ensure that duplicate webpages were not downloaded. Ultimately, the advantage of the wget command was that it allowed for a quick scrape of data from the Disability March website while still respecting the Robots Exclusion Standard, or indications from the website creators about sections that were not to be crawled and scanned.

Duplicate profiles were removed from the dataset created by the wget command, leaving 2,993 profiles for analysis. Statements and images were extracted from each protest profile and coded according to a set of questions developed by the author to help tease out common themes in the ways protestors chose to represent themselves. For profile statements, questions were designed to determine whether protestors were using person-first or identity-first language when they introduced themselves and their disabilities. To capture person-first language, passive sentence structures were identified such as, "I suffer from [x] disability" or "I am afflicted by [x]." In contrast were active or identity-first constructions such as "I am [Autistic/blind/Deaf, etc.]. Whenever a protestor identified a specific disability, this information was also noted along with any indications that the profile was written by a caretaker or person other than the subject of the profile.

The questions used in this analysis follow below:

Table 1: Criteria used to examine identity statements in Disability March profiles
Questions regarding profile statements Yes (number of profiles) No (number of profiles)
Did the protestor include a purpose statement in his/her profile? 2,976 17
Was the profile created on behalf of a person with a disability? 92 2,901
Did the protestor identify a specific disability in the image and/or text? 1,327 1,666
Did the protestor identify himself/herself with disability using a passive sentence construction? For instance, "I suffer from [a disability]" as opposed to "I am [Autistic, etc.]." 739 2,254

For several of these questions, word clouds were generated using Voyant to visually represent the most common identity statements on the Disability March website. Words used more frequently appear in larger and bolder font in the cloud while less used words appear smaller and more faintly. Word clouds are not a new technique but they have been used to good effect by scholars like Mueller (2012) to summarize a large amount of complex information. As Mueller noted, the intention of the word clouds included in this webtext is to be "summary-like without surrendering to a reductive logic of coherence and completeness."

Because of the subtle differences in facial expression, gaze, and placement of materials in images on the Disability March website, close reading was regarded as the most suitable technique for much of the visual analysis to follow. However, a small set of questions were also developed to code for common characteristics in some of the images. The first question dealt with the gaze of the person pictured in the profile: was the gaze direct to camera or away from the camera? A second question asked whether the person pictured was smiling or unsmiling in the photo. These two questions were chosen to draw out power dynamics between the disabled subject of each photo and the viewer scrolling through images on the Disability March website. As Garland-Thomson (2002) showed in her work, the disabled person has all too often been the object of the able-bodied person's gaze—an object of scrutiny and a means of emotional catharsis for the viewer. In this context, a profile picture employing a direct gaze and a stern expression might be interpreted as a kind of leveling in power dynamics. The subject acknowledges the viewer and doesn't welcome their approach or appropriation of the image.

Other studies of social media in particular have shown the importance of gaze and emotion in communicating specific culturally coded messages to the viewer. For instance, open body postures and individual poses are typically interpreted by Western audiences as signs of attractiveness and confidence (Vacharkulksemsuk et al., 2016). Research also suggests that the average profile picture is apt to show a seemingly healthy person—often smiling, looking into the camera, and clearly showing facial features to viewers. What's more, the subject of the normative photo may make eye contact with the camera to suggest assertiveness, empowerment, and confidence (Kaya & Bicen, 2016; Zheng et al., 2016). These findings were distilled into the two previously mentioned questions with the intention of drawing out messages the protestors in the Disability March may have wished to send when they selected their photos.

Two additional questions dealt with other objects or activities portrayed in profile pictures. Images that included assistive devices or medical equipment were identified because these images could be read as engaging with medical vs. social models of disability. These images were primarily marked for close readings to follow because of the complexity in identifying particular meanings in, for instance, a piece of medical equipment. As noted by Mara Mills (2015), assistive and medical devices may be seen in a positive or negative light because, on the one hand, they can facilitate independence and, on the other, "disable through the establishment of norms and diagnostic categories, segregating or stigmatizing regulatory practices, and unwanted therapies or adverse effects" (p. 178).

Although interpretation is similarly complex, images showing protestors engaged in sports or physical activity were also identified at this stage of the analysis. Some of these images receive closer readings later in this webtext because many of them engage variously with the taxonomy Garland-Thomson (2011) proposed to account for representation of disability as wondrous, exotic, sentimental, or realistic. Profiles may be read as either reinforcing, undermining, or capitalizing on these tropes, as discussed later in this webtext.

The full list of questions used to analyze images on the Disability March website follows below:

Table 2: Criteria used to examine photos in Disability March profiles
Questions regarding images Yes (number of profiles) No (number of profiles)
Did the profile include an image of the protestor? 2,118 875
If included, did the image show the protestor looking directly into the camera? 1,621 1,372
If included, did the image show the protestor smiling? 1,469 1,524
If included, did the image reference disability by including medical equipment or textual references to a specific medical condition? 235 2,758
If a person was shown in the image, were they engaged in a sport or other physical activity? 195 2,798

Accessibility Highlight Video: Tables (Transcript)