The Disability March as a Meta-Cyberprotest

0

Almost three years since the Women’s March on Washington set records for the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, a contingent of marchers continues to march in perpetuity. For these marchers the wounds of the 2016 Presidential Election are still fresh, their anger, hurt, fear, and hope still visceral. I am referring to the Disability Marchers—3,014 disabled and chronically ill women and their allies—who continue to march on the Disability March website. Although the website now serves as a publicly accessible archive from January 21, 2017, the testimonies of participants exist in the present. In this Blog Carnival entry, I consider the Disability March as a meta-cyberprotest: a protest of the inequality experienced by disabled women, ableist physical protest expectations, and ableist critiques of cyberprotest.

Screenshot of the Disability March Website: Black and white image of disabled protesters at the 1994 Las Vegas ADAPT protest with "Disability March" written over it and the top navigation of the website.

Fig 1: Screenshot of the Disability March homepage

The Women’s Disability March Goes Online

The Disability March pointedly avoids the use of the moniker “virtual,” instead emphasizing itself as a “march of disabled activists who could not take part in the physical Women’s March… but nevertheless needed to have their voices heard” (Huber, “Welcome!”). To participate, marchers submitted photographs rendering disabled bodies visible and accompanying testimonies, which ranged from single phrases to poems to family histories, documenting their reasons for participating in the march as well as their experiences as disabled women. In his study of the Disability March, Benjamin W. Mann argues that this march format, unlike physical protests, develops a coalition of activists, but emphasizes personal experience. These individual disability testimonies were hand-entered by a small group of organizers from January 20 to January 29, 2017 with a final total of 3,014 marchers across 2,251 entries.

While the Disability March does directly connect itself with the Women’s March, it also stands as a place for critique of feminist activism that excludes disabled and chronically ill women. The “Mission of the Disability March” reflects this tension:

“the effort was launched through a desire to have disabled people visible during a time in which far-right policies will fall hard on the disabled community. The disabled community is endangered because much able activism is difficult to access, and that needs to change. We need to be visible, to be leading and forming alliances, to be counted as activists and as members of our communities.”

Indeed, how the communities of the Disability March and the Women’s March are connected remains murky. In a now deleted Facebook post, Sonya Huber, the main organizer and spokesperson for the Disability March, referred to the Disability march as a “caucus” (Huber, “Welcome!”), but the website refers to the effort as “ad-hoc”. Although the links are no longer active, the Women’s March website listed the Disability March as a “partner” rather than a “sister march,” calling into question whether Women’s March organizers recognize the legitimacy of this protest as a march (“Partners” and “Sister”). From the margins, though, the Disability March speaks out and back to the Women’s March as a meta-cyberprotest claiming disability as a collective identity and a social justice issue.

Collectively Claiming Disability

As a distinct contingent of disabled and chronically ill marchers, the Disability March provided a space for collectively claiming disability and highlighting the unique concerns of disabled women, such as the repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, potential cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; and Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter. In her seminal work Claiming Disability, Simi Linton calls for a reclamation of the term “disabled”  as a method to “identify us as a constituency, to serve our needs for unity and identity, and to function as a basis for political activism” (12). The Disability March takes up this call for (re)claiming disability for political activism.

While the Disability March did not require marchers to disclose disability, many marchers did claim a disability identity and testify to their experiences of ableism. Marchers identified themselves as permanently disabled, temporarily disabled, chronically ill, mentally ill, and both visibly and invisibly disabled. I quote a few excerpts of disability testimonies to demonstrate the ways that marchers claimed disability as well as other marginalized identities:

“I’ve never been more comfortable identifying as disabled. I am a woman. I am chronically ill and disabled. I am a survivor. I can claim those now. I am also white, which provides me with a privilege not everyone has.”*

“I am a Transgender person with a Disability, I experience Ableism and Sexism nearly every day in all facets of life, and it saddens me that all women are not often included in feminist discourse, in activism, and in issues affecting all women.”*

“I have late-stage Lyme, which has greatly impacted my physical capability due to complications such as dysautonomia; thus, I am not strong enough to march. As a disabled woman of color and child of immigrants who believes in justice and social equality, I am strongly against the Trump administration and what it stands for.”*

“The part of me that is less ‘normal’ is standing up for those like me: physically and mentally disabled with non-heteronormative sexuality. The part of me that is ‘acceptable’ in current society — white, mostly Christian, educated middle class — is standing up for those who are other races, other classes, who practice other religions, or who have not had the opportunities I have had.”*

“As a non-binary person who lives every day with the effects of depression, PTSD, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, ADHD, panic disorder, dyslexia, disordered eating, and mild psychosis, I find it so important to have spaces available for people with disabilities to participate in and enact change for our current political system.”*

These self-identifications indicate that the Disability March, as an ad-hoc branch of the Women’s March speaking from the margin and for the marginalized, provided a space for individuals to explore their multiply marginalized identities, but also to recognize their intersecting positions of privilege. In this way, the Disability March realized intersectional feminism in a way that the Women’s March, which was critiqued as a display of white privilege and exclusionary to the trans women in addition to being inaccessible to disabled marchers, did not.

Against Ableist Activism

While the Disability March created a space for collectively claiming disability, the organizers and individual marchers also defined themselves in opposition to the ableism inherent in the physical Women’s March. Not only is a physical march inaccessible to disabled activists, but the Women’s March failed to privilege disability rights as a social justice issue. Disability rights activist Emily Ladau, noted that “disability rights are conspicuously absent from the Women’s March platform” and that disability was instead framed as a “burden” on other women. The very existence of the Disability March helped to make the Women’s March more accessible to disabled and chronically ill activists, but does not make the physical Women’s March more inclusive.

Disability Marchers brought attention to a range of reasons why the physical Women’s March was inaccessible. Some pointed to physical barriers: the walking distance of the march, inaccessible and/or unreliable transportation to and from the march, climates that were too cold or too hot to accommodate disability and illness, march policies that precluded service dogs, and lack of accessible bathrooms, rest stops, and seating. Others noted the unpredictability of their disabilities and illnesses. Still others acknowledged less visible barriers: anxiety, depression, PTSD, agoraphobia, low immune systems, fear of crowds, and sensory sensitivity. For many, the prospect of the incoming Trump administration further amplified disabilities, both visible and invisible.

These disability testimonies speak to the need for more inclusive forms of civil disobedience and activism developed for and by the groups of individuals excluded. In this sense, the Disability March is a form of metis as Jay Dolmage defines it in Disability Rhetoric: “the cunning intelligence needed to adapt to and intervene in a world of change and chance” (150). The Disability March is a “cunning and adaptive” meta-cyberprotest that resists the “forward march of logic,” or in this case traditional protest (5). Just as “bodies of metis and of its stories have been represented as weak, as failed” (160), cyberprotest has been considered slacktivism (Kristofferson), only capable of forming “weak ties” (Gladwell). However, the Disability March and the marcher’s disability testimonies reveal themselves as “weapons of stylish and cunning undoing, embodying critique” (Dolmage, 160). As suggested by the opening of this piece, the Disability March is a continual march that both defies and acknowledges the physical realm, points to new ways of (digitally) moving, and calls out and on future march organizers to redefine “march” and “protest.”

*Following the precedent set by Mann’s Disability Studies Quarterly article on the Disability March, I anonymously quote from marchers. As a group, disabled individuals are highly surveilled—social media surveillance of recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance by the current administration remains a possibility. While the site is public and all disability testimonies are publicly accessible, I aim to avoid recirculating the marcher’s personal data, such as full names, personal websites, social media accounts, physical location, and/or images of their faces that would make them identifiable and traceable.

Works Cited

“About Us.” Disability March, disabilitymarch.com/about/. Accessed 4 May 2017.

Berman, John. “Trump mocks reporter with disability.” CNN, www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2015/11/26/donald-trump-mocks-reporter-with-disability-berman-sot-ac.cnn. Accessed 18 November 2019.

Disability March, disabilitymarch.com/. Accessed 18 November 2019.

Dolmage, Jay, Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse University Press, 2013.

Gladwell, Malcolm. “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” The New Yorker. 4 October 2010, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/04/small-change-malcolm-gladwell. Accessed 18 November 2019.

Greer, Evan. “The Women’s March Left Trans Women Behind.” Advocate. 25 January 2017, https://www.advocate.com/commentary/2017/1/25/womens-march-left-trans-women-behind. Accessed 22 November 2019.

Huber, Sonya. “Welcome! The Disability March is a caucus of the Women’s March open to persons with disabilities and their advocates.” Facebook, 17 March 2017, www.facebook.com/ groups/1330503997034377/permalink/1448901838527925/. Accessed 4 May 2017. [no longer active]

Kristofferson, Kirk, et al. “The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action.” Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 40, April 2014, pp. 1149-1166.

Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York University Press, 1998.

Ladau, Emily. “Disability Rights Are Conspicuously Absent From The Women’s March Platform,” Medium, 16 January 2017, medium.com/the-establishment/disability-rights-are-conspicuously-absent-from-the-womens-march-platform-1d61cee62593. Accessed 17 November 2019.

Mann, Benjamin W. “Survival, Disability Rights, and Solidarity: Advancing Cyberprotest Rhetoric through Disability March.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 1, 2018, dsq-sds.org/article/view/5917/4886. Accessed 16 November 2019.

Miller, Mark. “U.S. government weighs social-media snooping to detect Social Security fraud.” Reuters, March 29, 2019, www.reuters.com/article/us-column-miller-socialmedia-idUSKCN1RA12R. Accessed 17 November 2019.

“Mission.” Disability March, disabilitymarch.com/mission/. Accessed 17 November 2019.

“Partners.” Women’s March, www.womensmarch.com/partners/. Accessed 4 May 2017. [no longer active]

Rmanathan, Lavanya. “Was the Women’s March just another display or white privilege? Some think so.” The Washington Post. January 25 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/was-the-womens-march-just-another-display-of-white-privilege-some-think-so/2017/01/24/00bbdcca-e1a0-11e6-a547-5fb9411d332c_story.html. Accessed 22 November 2019.

“Sister Marches.” Women’s March, www.womensmarch.com/sisters. Accessed 4 May 2017. [no longer active]

 

About Author(s)

Whitney Lew James is a PhD candidate in rhetoric and composition at Texas Christian University with research interests in translingual pedagogy, digital rhetoric, and disability studies.

Leave A Reply