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Expanding your interests: Using the power of social media

In this video, Beth Haller and Gerard Goggin talk about the usefulness of social media and technology in disability advocacy and activism.
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MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. The power of social media.
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BETH HALLER: To me, social media is really an important new addition to the media representation landscape these days. Because I think it gives people a way to get out their own authentic lived experience on their own terms. It takes away those middle people, those gatekeepers. They don’t have to wait for the news media or the entertainment media to tell their story. They can tell it now on Facebook, on Twitter, through a YouTube video, even on Pinterest. So I think that is really powerful. And from the news media standpoint, it’s actually feeding stories to the news media, who I think are now getting story ideas from social media.
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And so people with disabilities now can drive the news to more interesting and authentic stories from the disability community. And there was an article in New Mobility magazine in 2009 in the US. And it was just headlined “Why Facebook Matters.” And the point of the story was about how disability activists in the US and around the world are now using social media like Facebook to really support each other, to virtually be there for each other when they’re doing protests, or trying to support each other for whatever disability discrimination is happening in their location. And a good example a couple of years ago, New Zealand elected somebody into their government who was a deaf person.
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But they weren’t going to provide any sign language interpretation. This person was now going to be a government leader, but the New Zealand government was like, “Oh, well they have to pay for their own interpreter.” Well that went viral. All over the world, people said “That’s not right.” And so within a month or so, New Zealand changed its mind, paid for the interpreter that the government official needed. And I think that kind of thing can happen now because of social media. We can put pressure on each other’s governments. People get shamed into it worldwide.
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If something goes viral in Korea, in Australia, in Nigeria, whatever country it is, people are much more aware of disability issues in all these different locations. And everybody can support what’s happening in different countries via social media. So I think it’s really empowering. If you’re going to do activism, you have to be involved with social media. You really just have to get the word out and harness– I mean, in the old days, people had phone trees where they would call each other. Why do you have to do that now when you can just, with one post suddenly thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people, may see the issue and get a better understanding of the issue.
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And for a lot of people, it’s just plain fun. It’s a way to interact with like-minded people. The people who hate a lot of social media don’t understand that you can also create, especially in Facebook, a community of people that you want to be your friends. You don’t have to deal with the haters. You can only have disability activists in your group if you want, or only have your family in your group. So I think it’s really helpful to see how people are supporting each other.
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And some of the psychological studies now show that people using Facebook for any kind of support, it gives them the exact same support as if somebody called them on the phone or talked to them in person. So it’s just another medium to interact. And I just think it has been particularly well-tailored for people that might face architectural barriers or other kinds of barriers to interacting in life because there’s not a translator there, not an interpreter there, there’s not a wheelchair ramp, or there’s not good directions if you’re visually impaired, that kind of thing. So I think it can really– it’s just been a boon, I think, to a lot of the disability community.
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GERARD GOGGIN: Technology now plays a really crucial part in the activation of human rights and the achievement of human rights. So we can see this in many examples now in the ways that people have been using social media, the internet and mobile phones, around activism. And people with disabilities have been doing this around activist struggles, for instance, in Britain against welfare reform. They’ve been using it in the US around a whole range of political movements. They’ve been doing it in Australia to express displeasure around the closure of disability blogs, like “Ramp Up” for instance.
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So we can see that these are examples– a bit like the famous Arab Spring, or the activism around Tibet, or the many other examples where people have in some ways celebrated technology and human rights. There is a kind of double dance going on here around technology and human rights. Because we need to be aware of ways in which technology can also be used against human rights and just be mindful of that, and try and take that the ground away from that. There’s another dimension of this, I suppose. That increasingly, an important area of human rights is actually communication rights and the right to technology.
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So when we think about human rights, it’s not just about, say, our political rights, or our civil rights, or even social or economic rights. It’s also the right to participate in society, to participate in the culture, to be able to communicate. And so the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability really, I think, creates a whole lot of new aspects of these rights. And it draws our attention to the ways in which actually communication has a much greater set of meanings than we have previously thought. And we can learn this from the experiences of people with disabilities and the varieties of ways in which people with disability communicate, and in fact we all communicate.
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This actually becomes an incredibly important part about human rights, that activating rights is not just about speaking and expression, it’s actually about listening as well. It’s about other kinds of communication.

In the above video, Beth Haller and Gerard Goggin describe the importance of social media in activism today.

As both Beth and Gerard point out, there is a huge range of ways in which social media is used to support grass-roots activism. Most importantly, social media gives many people, particularly those who are otherwise isolated, access to a global disability community.

In our own Australian context, we have seen the usefulness of social media in relation to the roll-out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, or NDIS. The NDIS Grassroots discussion group on Facebook has been a particularly active platform for people around Australia to ask questions of peers about the new and changing funding landscape. It has become a useful way for people to gain knowledge and skills about how to advocate for themselves. While this Facebook page has a national focus on funding, there are many examples of when advocacy and activism have been taken online for very different reasons.

Beth suggests that social media enables people with disabilities and their allies to shape the media and policy discourses and police the actions of governments, organisations and individuals around the globe. On the other hand, Gerard cautions that technologies like social media are not themselves inherently good or bad and could be used for many different purposes, including to limit the rights of people with disabilities.

Talking points

  • Have you seen or engaged with disability activism or advocacy on social media? If so, please share your examples.
  • What do you think is particularly useful about disability activism or advocacy online?
  • How effective do you think social media is in terms of creating real change?
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