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Identity and Representation in the 2017 Disability March

Talea Anderson


One of the greatest strengths of the Disability March was its ability to capture a range of disabled experiences. By inviting a large number of protestors to compose and contribute their own profiles, the website worked as a whole to counter the simplistic tropes Garland-Thomson (2011) identified. Some profiles used language and visual cues that downplayed or normalized disability while others pushed it to the fore by including medical equipment, assistive devices, or specific references to medical conditions. For the creators of these profiles, the Disability March provided a space to acknowledge the diverse structural challenges faced by people with visible and invisible disabilities. The website as an avenue for protest enabled more nuanced and realistic representations of disability than often seen in discussions like the one that emerged around Kovaleski and Trump. In the end, what the Disability March did best was to challenge "practices of erasure," as identified by Ellen Barton (2001) in her examination of advertising by the United Way. By giving voice to many protestors, the website defies efforts to read disability as a simplistic, unified experience.

While acknowledging the important role protests like the Disability March have in more clearly representing disability, this webtext also points out the often invisible structures that can hinder inclusion in this kind of digital space. The Disability March appears to lack in racial diversity—perhaps because of the organizers' limited connections and perhaps for deeper reasons having to do with the ways that disability has too often been constructed as a white experience. Additionally, participation in the Disability March was determined in part by factors like technical prowess, Internet access, and the ability to click, scroll, and view visual content. The digital tools used in the march thus communicated subtle values both to potential protestors and later viewers of the protest, indicating who was and was not invited into that space. A person struggling to access the website might read the entire protest as an unwelcoming space or, at best, a protest about disabled people but not for them. Accessibility thus acted as an additional rhetorical layer that had to be acknowledged in an analysis of messages conveyed about disability in the Disability March.

This webtext makes an argument for analyzing digital spaces on both the macro and micro level. No one profile within the Disability March could be interpreted as representing everyone's experience of disability—not only because everyone's experience is fundamentally different, but also because the website often drew protestors with particular abilities and socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds, while leaving out other perspectives and experiences. The intention here has been to use several analytical lenses for examining the Disability March in order to point out both differences in experiences of disability and gaps in representation. Future researchers may similarly benefit from considering the various rhetorics at play when they carry out analyses of digital spaces.

Web accessibility is a concern that deserves particular attention as public discourses are increasingly carried out online. These discourses may embrace inclusion and diversity on a surface level while failing to acknowledge largely invisible underlying structures that limit participation in said discussions. In the end, people with diverse abilities need to be more fully welcomed into all spaces—whether that be in web development, political protest, or research teams carrying out studies like the forgoing analysis of the Disability March. With greater perspective, all of these communities can more readily address and resolve structural limitations that they once ignored or overlooked. Ultimately, this point was at the heart of the Disability March and for everybody it bears repeating.