Many people are of the opinion that online activism is not “real” activism, and that activists who have a predominantly online presence are not activists at all. I have been told that my blog is basically worthless, and that my social media feeds are useless. Not only is this opinion incredibly exclusive; it’s provably wrong.
For some people, online discourse is the only feasible way for them to publicly discuss the prejudice and other issues they face. This might be because someone is bedbound or housebound due to illness, or difficulties communicating in-person due to problems hearing, or because in-person social interaction is daunting and energy-draining. Alternatively, it could be because a deadly virus was decimating the population.
During the pandemic online communication became the norm, with many workplaces utilising teleconferencing software to allow people to work from home, and even big events and conferences were hosted via video call. Unfortunately, as public behaviour has returned to the “norm” (despite the virus still very much posing a substantial threat), the use of online communication is waning. Many disabled people are once again being excluded from events or forced into inaccessible situations as a result of this. Even if you personally do not need to rely on online formats, the people who do are losing the voice they were given. They no longer can share their experiences or make their voices heard, and their exclusion continues.
Even outside of a pandemic online activism has a real-world impact. When I started Diary of a Disabled Person almost five years ago, I had no idea just how many opportunities would come my way because of it. During this time, I have written for countless magazines and reached an international audience, so much so that until people hear me speak, I am often presumed to be an American (I’m actually British, which is arguably worse).
Some of these writing opportunities have come about because I approached someone, but at least half have come from people contacting me. I’ve even been approached to be a representative of a couple of mobility aid companies, but while I’m happy to share resources in return for being promoted, I tend to be wary of sponsorship and it’s potential to undermine my message. I’m lucky; my wage from my job in medical research is enough to pay the bills.
Writing is not my only means of activism, however. My social media activity has drawn the attention of reporters, and I’ve given interviews for radio stations and newspapers. Furthermore, I have contributed to the documentary Bathroom Privileges about the difficulties marginalised groups face when accessing public bathrooms, and am currently preparing to film for another documentary on accessibility when out and about.
If you’re still not convinced that any of the above actually has any impact on the experiences of marginalised groups, there is still more to consider. Since starting my work in medical research I have sat on multiple equality and inclusion committees, helping to shape policies within my department and protect vulnerable groups from badly thought-out decisions. This came about as a result of my writing, as did what was still to come; founding and becoming co-chair of a university-wide staff network representing disabled, neurodiverse, and chronically and mentally ill people. While still in its infancy, this network already has some pretty big goals that will massively change the experiences of disabled staff, and being a world-class university means that the example we set usually influences others to do the same.
All of the above has taken less than five years to manifest. I’ve not described it to brag or show off, but to prove how having an online presence can influence others. Even if you yourself cannot film a documentary or go to work, chances are your words will influence someone who can do those things; I have lost count of how many blog posts have stemmed from posts I have seen online.
Truth be told, I think that those who grumble about the supposed inefficacy of online activism are just bitter about opportunities they regret not taking, and are jealous of those who have found success as a butterfly effect of taking those opportunities.