Disability March (DM) was an online contingent of the 2017 Women's March on Washington which allowed protestors who could not attend physical marches due to disabilities to create profiles and descriptions on the website disabilitymarch.com. In this thematic analysis of the 2,251 profiles created through DM, I found emergent themes related to disability disclosure, support for broad health care coverage, support for human rights, and opposition to the new political administration. Comments supporting these themes demonstrated that DM functioned as a unique form of cyberprotest that upheld disabled perspectives through solidarity. This study demonstrates that disability cyberprotest movements like DM may promote disabled individuals within broader protest discourse and contemporary policy issues that are often essential to the survival and well-being of marginalized individuals.
"The deep sadness I felt when I realized I couldn't physically participate in The [Women's] March was transformed into empowerment when I discovered the Disability March. Deciding to join my disabled sisters actually helped me face the fact of my disability. My dear, wise friend reminded me: 'If you qualify, I qualify too, so we're in it together'" -Disability March protestor.
The protestor quoted above was one of over 3,014 people who, starting on January 21st, 2017, participated in Disability March (DM), a contingent of the Women's March on Washington which fundamentally reshaped what it meant to "march" in a public protest. Disabled individuals, who are approximately 20% of the U.S. population (Bernstein, 2012), experience significant structural barriers, including (but not limited to) stamina, anxiety in large public spaces, and an inability to walk, which often prevent many disabled people from participating in public marches (Dupere, 2017). Acknowledging these barriers, DM allowed disabled populations to be included in public discourse through a unique form of cyberprotest that centered each disabled protestor. DM participants registered themselves on the website disabilitymarch.com and had the opportunity to publicly engage by posting a profile including their name, a photo, and a description of why they were attending DM. These profiles brought unique exposure to disabled individuals by sharing a variety of narratives about disabled experience, including threats to health care and survival under the current U.S. political administration that may have otherwise been silent in the Women's March. In addition to being visible on the front page of its website, DM profiles circulated through the organization's official Twitter page and Facebook group. By the time DM stopped accepting new profiles on January 29th, 2017, a total of 2,251 personal and group profiles were available on the website, which represented the perspectives of 3,014 different virtual protestors. All profiles are now archived on disabilitymarch.com.
DM gained significant public attention as an unconventional form of public argumentation and protest that highlighted the immediate and potential impacts of a Donald Trump presidency on disabled populations and allowed media outlets to consider new, disability-inclusive forms of public expression. The Washington Post covered the DM protest, writing that participants' "activism reveals how Trump — who before the election mocked a reporter's disability and since becoming president has taken immediate steps toward dismantling the Affordable Care Act — is mobilizing even those who aren't easily mobile" (Gibson, 2017). Popular media outlets including the Huffington Post, Upworthy, Mashable, and Bustle also covered DM, writing about its popularity and unique opportunities for disabled populations to participate in public discourse. For instance, Upworthy wrote that DM was "a reminder to allies as well as elected officials that the disabled community has a voice and deserves a space in protest movements" (Hirschlag, 2017). In this way, DM simultaneously allowed disabled individuals to participate in the Women's March while highlighting how physical protests were frequently inaccessible in comparison.
DM's creation points to its broader efforts at including disabled perspectives in social activism. Its founder, a woman named Sonya Huber, remarked: "I began to wonder about other ways to be visible, especially for our [disabled] community… since the disabled community is going to be so impacted by the Republican agenda, it seemed that giving people a platform to tell their individual stories was most appropriate" (Dupere, 2017). Huber and others were motivated to create DM in response to these concerns, and they soon began to experience a flood of online profiles. They found themselves barely able to keep pace with adding DM profiles to the site by the time it closed on January 29th, 2017 (Disability March, 2017). DM's popularity, then, reveals a variety of perspectives who now had the chance to engage in broader political discussions. I argue that DM responds to a contemporary question in critical Disability Studies: "What can a body do?" (Heisinger-Nixon, 2017), by suggesting that a variety of disabled populations can offer meaningful challenges to disabling institutions and impediments to social activism through online protest.
DM emerges at a crucial time because the Trump Administration poses a unique threat to disabled populations, allowing consideration of how contemporary disability activism might respond to these concerns. Trump's continued push to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), even after the failure to repeal it in the U.S. Senate from July through September of 2017, ensures that health care will likely remain an issue of major national contention for several years (Everett & Dawsey, 2017). Health care cuts would disproportionately impact disabled populations: 2017 iterations of Republican health care legislation in Congress included major cuts to Medicaid, which 30% of nonelderly disabled adults rely on, and the cuts were projected to significantly reduce their access to health care visits, surgeries, and medications (Musumeci & Fotz, 2017). The enforcement of these health care changes or future health care policies under the Trump administration may pose major risks for the lives of disabled populations. Moreover, President Trump's rhetoric on the campaign trail reinforced stigmas against disabled populations. In 2015, Trump mocked reporter Serge Kovaleski, a man with arthrogryposis, by making fun of his arm mobility and speaking patterns (Arkin, 2015). Trump's behavior drew heavy criticism from media outlets and backlash from disabled populations, with many expressing the concern that Trump was insensitive to disability issues (Arkin, 2017). Recent scholarship has expressed similar concerns, noting that our "particularly perilous historical moment" (Fox, 2017) necessitates critical approaches that center disabled perspectives.
In light of the immediate social significance of DM, combined with the lack of current study on DM and the cultural climate of disability issues under the current U.S. political administration, this study explores the argumentative themes that emerge from DM profiles, and how these themes advance discourse on disability rights. The study's findings offer evidence that cyberprotest can function in ways that push back against dominant stigmatizing and discriminating policies toward disabled populations, while also pushing cyberprotest in new directions. Specifically, DM not only allowed disabled protestors to respond against threats to their health posed by the Trump administration and join in solidarity with the Women's March, but it also allowed each protestor their own space to share a protest message, which centered disabled individuals in a way not normally associated with cyberprotest. These messages, which included narratives about disabilities, the relationship between disabilities and other aspects of social identity, and support of human rights, among others, allowed each protestor to be part of a larger movement while also articulating their own unique experiences. In this way, DM is counter-hegemonic, directly challenging the normalcy of ableism by promoting disabled forms of knowledge (Mogendorff, 2017). Moreover, DM functioned as a coalition to eradicate ableism while still emphasizing the positionality of each protestor, addressing contemporary concerns of movements that flatten disability into a singular set of experiences (Robinson, 2017). As a result, and given that DM profiles are still currently archived, this cyberprotest uniquely expands cultural knowledge by presenting a variety of disabled experiences that remain accessible. Given DM's significance, this paper begins with a review of relevant literature and an overview of methods, before presenting analysis of its findings and offering conclusions.
This literature review covers two topical areas: first, the disability rights movement, including critical disability theory, is discussed generally to provide context on the disability activism of DM specifically and second, research pertaining to rhetoric and online social movements is discussed to explore the digital modes of persuasion offered through DM.
Disability Rights Movement
The rise of the disability rights movement has been largely attributed to the development of the social model of disability by The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) and the Disability Alliance in 1975 (Carling-Jenkins, 2014). Unlike dominant medical narratives about disability (Lyotard, 1979), the social model argued that "disability is a situation, caused by social conditions" (U, 1975, p. 3). Linton's (1988) foundational work in Claiming Disability expanded upon this model, arguing that disability was a political category that marginalized atypical perspectives. To assist in centering disabled perspectives, Devlin and Pothier (2006) developed critical disability theory (CDT) as a bottom-up approach, putting the perspectives of disabled people at the forefront of research with a focus on genuine inclusiveness and disability rights, and acknowledging that ableism, or "the belief that disabled people are inferior" (p. 9) needed to be challenged. This placed disability in the context of power and ideology (Marx, 1974; Hall, 1996), including the regulation of bodies by biopolitical control (Foucault, 1990).
Drawing from the social model and CDT, previous research has addressed how disability activists differentiated their own impairments from the societal conditions that rendered their impairments disabling through social movements (Beckett, 2006). Following Griffin's (1952) foundational work that defined social movement research, Giddens' (1993) defined social movements as "a large group of people who have become involved in seeking to accomplish, or to block, a process of social change" (p. 746). Disability movements occurred in a variety of international contexts, with many prominent protests occurring in Australia and the U.K. (Carling-Jenkins, 2014). In the U.S., disability activism led to legislative victories including the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) in 1990 (Winter, 2003). Disability activism continued well after passage of the ADA, with hundreds of U.S. protests each year, including a series of 1999 protests by veterans for health care benefits (Barnartt, 2008). At the same time, foundational literature including Jim Sinclair's (1993) article "Don't Mourn For Us," advanced the disability rights movement by critically assessing the stigmatization of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
More recent studies of disability activism reveal multiple issues in contemporary movements. Meekosha et al (2009) highlighted the need for CDT to examine disability in relation to multiple forms of oppression, such as colonialism and racism. Attempts to unify under a single "disability rights movement" often ignored the unique challenges faced, for instance, by disabled women of color (Conejo, 2013). Another criticism was that much of the disability social movement's broader efforts toward societal reform came at the expense of individuals being able to publicly share their own disabilities and experiences, such as the experience of pain (Bendelow & Williams, 1995; Shakespeare & Watson, 2002). This has emphasized the need for critical disability research to examine how disabled populations transition to, and navigate, contemporary challenges of a disabling world (Jones, 2017). Recent work has reminded us as scholars to engage self-reflexively and challenge whiteness, racism, and other forms of socially constructed power in order to center intersectionality in Disability Studies (Miles et al, 2017). Despite the progress of the disability rights movement, it is currently faced with the task of addressing embodied experiences and intersectional forms of oppression.
As this research demonstrates, DM emerges at a time in which disability activism must balance broader social change with the need to address disability as a political category. DM's simultaneous focus on centering disabled perspectives (consistent with CDT) while contributing to a broader movement for disability rights and the Women's March therefore invites RQ1: "How does DM place individual perspectives in conversation with the disability rights movement?"
Rhetoric and Online Social Movements
Given the structural barriers that may inhibit disability activism and the rise of new media technology to convey disabled perspectives (Dupere, 2017), examining the rhetoric of online social movements is crucial. Online social movements build from fundamentals in argumentation and rhetoric. The public screen (which evolved from Habermas' public sphere) suggests that visual networks such as the Internet "introduce new forms of social organization and new modes of perception" (DeLuca & Peeples, 2002, p. 131), including the speed with which arguments and images can circulate online. Identification assists in this process. Communication scholar Kenneth Burke (1952) conceptualized identification as a form of argumentation in which a speaker or writer mobilizes an audience by finding points of commonality. Charland (1987) advanced identification by suggesting that social movements unite subjects under a singular identity and mobilize them toward a narrative of political change. This may function as a form of strategic essentialism, which Spivak (1988) described as a deliberate reduction of individuals in social movements to a single collective identity in order to achieve unity and visibility in cultures. This collective unity may occur by destigmatizing invisible populations and bringing them into the center of political argumentation (Brouwer, 1998).Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson (2001) bridged rhetoric with Disability Studies, observing that language assigns meaning and value to the body in ways that often reinforce ableism and marginalization, while also noting that rhetoric can be used to resist power. Dolmage (2014) similarly noted that those with bodily differences have often been disqualified from public discourse, and argued that engaging with a variety of disabled populations is essential to understand the rhetorical histories and perspectives that have often been left in the margins within social movements.
Online social movements, including disability movements, have been aided through the use of cyberprotest rhetoric. Cyberprotest is "an emerging field of social movement research that reflects the role of alternative online media, online protests, and online communication in society" (Fuchs, 2006, p. 275). Donk et al (2004) noted that cyberprotests have given birth to new social movements and dramatically restructured political organization because they allow populations to connect virtually, and political leaders to respond to this organization with legislative change. Studies of cyberprotest have included the Zapatistas, who have used methods including websites and email-bombing campaigns to argue for civil rights, forming new forms of social media to communicate through online when met with governmental opposition (Pitman, 2007). Pickerill (2010) found that cyberprotest assisted in environmental activism among groups including the Green Student Network by broadening the public sphere and challenging dominant media representations of environmental activism. Lastly, Lysenko and Desouza (2010) found that cyberprotest functioned as an important way for information to be spread among individuals who then formed opposition groups t in Russia, with protestors finding new forms of technology to convey information when Russia attempted to silence them.
As online disability activism is an emerging field of study, there is limited existing research on online disability movements and the response by political leaders to cyberprotest movements, but present research suggests that cyberprotest rhetoric presents enormous potential to advance disability rights while eliminating negative stereotypes regarding disability. Pearson (2015) argued that disability activism through the use of social media during the 2012 Paralympic Games functioned within "new media ecology," as it led to changes in governmental policy and more favorable news coverage for disability protests. Parent and Veilleux (2016) observed that, through the use of Facebook groups, disabled participants were able to advocate for change to public transit systems, revealing the awareness and public activism forged through disability movements online. Trevisan (2013), in an extensive analysis of online disability activism, found that formal disability organizations, experienced disability activists, and new disability protestors alike were able to use social media and online forums to quickly protest for policy changes, including opposition to proposed cuts to Medicaid, that gained traction among viewers and were even cited by some members of Congress. These cases demonstrate that cyberprotest may benefit a variety of existing disability advocates, create structural change, and bring new participants into the fold. However, disability cyberprotest does carry limitations. Huang and Guo (2005) explained that barriers, including economic limitations and an inability to use certain new media technologies, may limit the ability of disability advocates to access online spaces. Disability protest therefore functions as a growing and effective avenue for social change, but one that cannot be considered accessible for all disabled populations.
Given the rise of contemporary disability cyberprotest and the increasing use of online avenues to successfully achieve social change, DM is a unique development because of its specific reaction to the Trump Administration, its position as part of the broader Women's March, and its opportunity to provide individual profiles in contribution to a larger movement. In light of these unique qualities, I present RQ2: "How does Disability March function as a unique form of cyberprotest?"
To address both major research questions, DM profiles were analyzed using a qualitative thematic analysis (TA) method (Braun & Clarke, 2006) informed by the theoretical framework of Critical Disability Theory (CDT), informed by Devlin & Pothier (2006).
Data in this study consists of the 3,014 digital marchers across 2,251 individual profiles publicly available on disabilitymarch.com, the official website of DM. All profiles and marchers from DM were included in an effort to follow CDT's commitment to engaging with as many disabled perspectives as possible. Participants created profiles between January 21st, 2017, and January 27th, 2017, which were archived on the website. Individual Disability March profiles contain a name and frequently photos at the top, followed by a full description that answered the prompt: "Why I'm marching." Responses to the prompt displayed an enormous range of length, between single sentences to multiple paragraphs, depending on the profile.
Thematic Data Analysis
Braun and Clarke (2006) stated that thematic analysis (TA) involves "identifying, analyzing, and reporting patterns (themes) within data" (p. 6). In this study, TA allowed me to organically find and develop themes that disabled populations conveyed in DM profiles. TA involves the deduction of patterned responses that appear in the data (Braun & Clarke, 2006). This study followed all six of Braun and Clarke's (2006) steps for conducting TA. First, I became familiar with the data by visiting each Disability March profile individually. Taking handwritten notes, I began writing down initial observations and common themes, noting the frequency with which each emerging theme was discussed in profiles. Second, I developed initial codes based off of early observations by returning to the full digital profiles and comparing them to my handwritten notes. At this stage, I digitally copied each profile description onto NVivo software. NVivo was used to help me find emergent themes by searching for the most common words and phrases. This process was guided by tree mapping, cluster analysis, and matrix coding and examined how words were being used in Disability March profiles. As Gibbs (2014) outlined, qualitative data analysis software can help me organize data and explore themes, but it does not form themes for me. NVivo is similarly limiting because it may miss certain synonyms for words or ignore the context of particular words. Given these limitations, NVivo was used to help crystallize and search through themes I already developed, and I returned to individual profiles and my notes to assess the accuracy of NVivo's results.
Next, I added new categories and subcategories based on the frequency with which they were found in profile descriptions. I delineated and solidified themes, noting general narrative trends and characteristics in those themes while finding key passages and quotations that matched many of the perspectives being conveyed therein. Though the names of DM protestors are publicly available on disabilitymarch.com, I chose to display passages in my analysis anonymously in order to support the privacy of individual protestors. Though I recognize that my own subjectivity shaped their interpretation of themes and results, I believe this shaping is valuable because it opens up multiple interpretations of subjective disabled experience through qualitative research (Lindlof & Taylor, 2001).
Four major themes emerged from Disability March profiles:
- disability disclosure;
- support for social services and health care;
- support for human rights;
- opposition to President Trump's character.
Several subcategories under these major themes were also found and categorized. These themes as a whole to center disabled perspectives within cyberprotest, including the concerns and challenges that disabled individuals expressed under the current presidential administration, as well as solidarity among protestors despite a variety of individual perspectives. Results demonstrate CDT's commitment to centering disabled perspectives within power through the use of extensive quotations and support from DM profiles and the numerous social and personal issues that protestors raised.
The most common theme consisted of Disability March participants disclosing their disabilities as part of their public profiles. There was an exceptionally diverse set of disabilities shared among participants. These disabilities included those that were temporary, permanent, visible, and invisible. Some of the most common disabilities shared in profiles included broken legs and/or feet, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), cancer, heart disease, Crohn's disease, Lyme's disease, migraine headaches, and multiple sclerosis (MS), though rarer disabilities were also shared. While some participants simply remarked that they had disabilities, many chose to go into extensive descriptions about how their disabilities impacted their lives, including their limitations in performing daily tasks, and their capacity to physically attend protests. For instance, one participant wrote: "I have cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease that slowly destroys the lungs through repeated infections. There is no cure. I am unable to work because the medical treatments that keep me alive take up at least 4-5 hours of every day."
While most participants chose to discuss their own disabilities in their profiles, some who stated that they did not have disabilities themselves instead dedicated their profiles to disclosing (with permission) the disabilities of family members, friends, or those they worked with. For example, one protestor stated: "My nephew who has Autism as well as the children I work with as a Clinical Social Worker are in danger of losing the education they deserve." Some participants were not able to create their own profiles due to their disabilities, so family members created profiles in their stead. There were also many instances of couples and family members disclosing their disabilities as a group. One of these cases was a disabled grandmother, mother, and daughter who banded together to create a single profile in which they each shared their disabilities.
Many participants cited DM as a unique outlet through which they could discuss their disabilities publicly. These included a protestor who wrote: "thank you for recognizing the differently-abled among us and providing this opportunity to have our voices heard. I am joining the Disability March today because, as a disabled person and as a woman, I am not interested in losing any of the so-hard-fought-for women's and disability rights that we have now in this country." For this participant, DM was praised not only as a way for disabled populations to be involved with the Women's March, but also as a way for the Women's March to place a greater emphasis on specific disabilities and disabilities in general.
Though many participants discussed the challenges that their disabilities brought to their lives, along with the ways in which their disabilities were threatened under a Trump administration, disability disclosures allowed participants to speak positively about their disabilities as a part of their identities. One participant exemplified this outlook by proclaiming: "My disability is a part of me, and I decided to embrace it instantly." Speaking to the stigma attached to disability and women, one participant observed: "Amid all the divisiveness of the election I started to take a hard look at the way some might label me. I am a woman, I am disabled, etc. These labels shouldn't hold me back. They are part of me, my reality, and I should be able to live in my own skin without fear." Disclosures such as these reveal challenges to dominant cultural conceptions of disabilities that paint them as undesirable or in a constant need of a cure, instead centering disabled experiences as valid identities worthy of inclusion in public discourse.
Disability Disclosure to Explain March Attendance
Many participants strategically chose to disclose their disabilities in order to explain why they were unable to attend physical protests such as those at the D.C. capitol or their own local marches, and these disclosures often brought to light how public protests continue to be inaccessible to many disabled individuals. One participant shared: "Unfortunately, my anxiety and panic disorder make large crowds extremely difficult. Onward, folks. Let's raise hell." Participants frequently chose to disclose anxiety and difficulty managing crowds as reasons for attending DM in lieu of a physical march. Lack of energy, an inability to walk or stand (or be able to do so for extended periods of time), or fears of a possible seizure or episode were also disclosed and explained as reasons for protestors selecting DM over other demonstrations. At times, protestors disclosing why they were unable to attend physical marches revealed surprising implications about cultural conditions that make society disabling, such as lack of access to medication or an inability to climb up steps necessary to make it to a public demonstration. For instance, one protestor said: "Although I cannot march, I have attended a few protests over time in a canine sulky, pulled by my two huskies. But I cannot get to Washington, and our local march doesn't allow dogs."
For some participants, disclosing their disabilities was a way for them to disclose the experiences of temporary disabilities. Participants in one profile noted that: "We planned to attend but the flu sidelined us- it is important to remember that sometimes disability is temporary and at any given time anyone can be unable to participate fully. By advocating for an accessible and inclusive America we can be sure that everyone can participate regardless of ability. We cannot afford to leave people out." Disability disclosures such as these revealed ways in which many populations can be temporarily disabled, and how temporary disabilities may still restrict access to public discourse. Still others disclosed that they were originally planning to attend physical marches, but had to cancel due to factors including recent hospitalization, injuries, or panic attacks.
Disability Disclosure and Other Identity Disclosures
Many participants who disclosed their disabilities emphasized that they were not singularly defined by their disabilities and chose to share other parts of their identity. These disclosures most frequently included age, but race, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, and marital status were also common. Through this disclosure, participants often highlighted the intersections between disability and other aspects of their identity. One protestor quipped: "I am a disabled gay woman—that's 3 strikes against me according to the new administration." Another expressed similar sentiments: "As a queer transmale person of color caring for my disabled older sibling while studying art education, I cannot even begin to express the horror and fear of the future I feel by the examples and beliefs supported by Trump and his appointed cabinet."
The DM profiles represented a broad array of diversity not only in disabilities, but also in other aspects of social identity. This allowed participants to both speak to experiences concerning their disabilities and highlight how their disabilities were related to other social factors including racism, patriarchy, classism, and xenophobia. This also allowed disabled protestors to express support for other social movements. For instance, it was common for many protestors to support Black Lives Matter and articulate their opposition to police brutality as well as their opposition to mass deportation of immigrants. DM protestors were not only able to speak to multiple pressing social issues that marginalize identities, but were able to uniquely express how systems such as racism and patriarchy were able to relate to disabilities.
Disclosure of social identities is a crucial element of DM: because the protest allowed each individual to create their own profile description, sharing disabilities allowed readers to consider how physical protests leave out multiple perspectives. Moreover, disclosure allowed disabled protestors to share stories with readers about the challenges and threat to their survival. For many readers, these disclosure narratives may function as a form of identification that allow the reader to better understand broader instances of ableism while simultaneously engaging with individual perspectives.
Support for Social Services and Health Care
DM participants frequently stated that they were marching to support social services and health care coverage for themselves and those throughout the country. Many participants expressed their support for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (frequently called the ACA or Obamacare by participants) and advocated against cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Others advocated in more general terms for affordable health care coverage, with one participant arguing: "People deserve universal health care. Health care should not be a for-profit industry." Though contentions about cuts to health care and social services were the primary issues expressed by participants, some discussed other barriers that inhibited their access to health care coverage. A DM profile included the description: "As of Feb 1st, I will have no Healthcare, because my husband makes too much for state access, but not enough to pay premiums." Sentiments like these were common, with participants noting the high costs of premiums, an inability to afford necessary surgeries, and threats to gender confirmation surgery and medications for trans participants. Though participants cited most threats to their health care as coming from possible cuts from Congress, several profiles revealed problems with health care in the United States due to other existing issues in the American health care system.
Health Care and Social Service Access for Personal Survival
It was extremely common for DM participants to explain how cuts to health care and social services would impoverish or kill them, and many profiles used these personal narratives as a strategy to explain their need for accessible health care coverage. As mentioned in the previous theme, disability disclosure was common among participants, but disabilities were also disclosed in conjunction with discussing support for health care access. One protestor shared their experiences by stating: "I suffer from Chronic Systemic Sarcoidosis, and auto immune inflammatory disease that causes my immune system to attack my own body. You can imagine just how expensive the drugs I have to take for this are. I am also an insulin dependent diabetic. If I lose my insurance coverage, I will be dead within a month. The incoming administration thinks that I am a drain on society and that I do not deserve to live. I am scared." Reports like these were frequent, with many participants explaining how the ACA was essential to their own survival. Another DM participant wrote that "participating in the Women's March would reflect my concern for older women who now must rely on Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security to survive. Cuts to those programs will be devastating and many elderly women may find themselves homeless or without access to medical care." In instances like these, participants contemplated the possible effects of social service cuts on their friends, family members, and other individuals in the U.S.
Health Care/Social Service Access and Invisible Perspectives
It was common for DM participants to express concerns that they were invisible or disposable, making cuts to their health care and social service access unimportant or unknown to Congress and the Trump Administration. These concerns were reflected in profiles like these, which said: "I am one of the invisible ones. I am a female combat veteran with PTSD due to MST and suffer from the autoimmune condition CRPS 1. I can't handle crowds but want my voice to be heard for myself and all my battles who didn't make it back physically and mentally." For many participants, DM was cited as a unique space in which their voices were no longer unknown, and instead allowed them to contribute to public debate surrounding health care access in the U.S. This was exemplified in a profile that stated: "I am not invisible and I want the new government to know that as a disabled Medicare recipient. I need my medicine and my insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor."
The support for social services and health care articulated by DM protestors is important in multiple ways. First, it allowed protestors to discuss the threats to their lives that cuts to health care would bring, and DM was an outlet for this expression for individuals who could not otherwise protest. Additionally, however, the DM protests remind readers that disabling conditions and threats to health care access are not limited to health care cuts, challenging readers to engage in a longer fight for disability rights.
Support for Human Rights
Matching the diverse array of social locations among those who created profiles, another theme involved DM participants expressing their solidarity a variety of human rights that were not just limited to disability rights. While some chose to support human rights in general terms, many advocated specifically for women's rights, LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive rights, rights for survivors of sexual assault, rights of indigenous peoples, and support for racial justice. One profile noted: "Disability rights are human rights. The rights of racial minorities are human rights. LGBTQ+ rights are human rights. Women's rights are human rights. We exist, and we will not be silent." Many profiles used hashtags or referenced specific human rights issues by name, with several using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and #NoDAPL (in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline). Profiles often expressed concern that these issues were being overlooked. Another protestor expressed their solidarity by saying: "My Ehler's-Danlos Syndrome prohibits me from physically joining in the marches going on around our beautiful country, but I am there in spirit." As a result, many thought of DM as a chance for them to add their experiences to the Women's March, while also carving out spaces for organized resistances among disabled populations.
Histories of Marching for Human Rights
For several participants, DM was not their first march for human rights. As one protestor shared: "At the last march I participated in–a Black Lives Matter rally in Ithaca, New York–I nearly passed out mid-march due to my intersecting conditions of diabetes and anxiety." Many participants described their experiences at previous marches, with some noting, like this one, that these experiences helped them realize that attending physical marches was not feasible due to their disabilities. Others expressed that their disabilities had changed over time, rendering them unable to participate in public marches. This included protestors like the following: "I wish to join the online March as I live in Oregon and cannot get to DC. I marched there many times in the 60'S and early 70's starting when I was 13. I marched for civil rights and women's rights. I marched with Dr King and with NOW. I marched against the Vietnam War." DM profiles allowed many protestors to reflect on a long history of supporting human rights and participating in social change, and DM showed how their ability to attend physical marches had changed over time, but that their impassioned beliefs had not.
Women's Rights at the Forefront
While DM profiles talked about many different types of human rights, women's rights were often at the forefront. Women's rights were discussed in a variety of different contexts. A protestor remarked: "In the 70's I marched for the ERA, and said 'yes I can' to live my life, have a 'non traditional career' and live by my principles. I will not be silent until all people have the equal rights and opportunities." Support for the Equal Rights Amendment, Planned Parenthood, and eliminating the wage gap was a frequent topic among DM participants. Others expressed their support for Secretary Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and politicians including Elizabeth Warren, whom they believed exemplified rights and empowerment for women. Similarly, several DM protestors called themselves "nasty women," in reference to Trump's derogatory remarks to Clinton in a presidential debate. Many DM protestors outed themselves as survivors of rape and sexual assault, arguing that efforts to eliminate sexual violence, curtail rape culture, and empower prosecution for these crimes was essential. As one protestor remarked: "I march for every sexual assault victim who is silenced." In many instances, this focus on eliminating sexual violence was specific to women, though many addressed the ways in which assault and violence extended to groups including non-binary communities.
DM's support for human rights is extremely important because it occupies a unique tension with the Women's March. When the official platform for the Women's March was released, its failure to include disability as a social justice issue and its wording of disability care as a "burden" that often falls on women received criticism from disability advocates (Ladau, 2017). Evident in multiple DM profiles, then, is a simultaneous effort to express solidarity with multiple social justice issues through cyberprotest while also fighting to include disability as an additional social justice issue, even when the Women's March did not convey this reciprocally in its platform.
Opposition to President Trump's Character
As Trump's presidential election in 2016 was a major impetus for other contingents of the Women's March to mobilize protests, so too did it inspire multiple DM participants. Many profiles chose to directly reference Trump by name, while others referenced him indirectly, such as the "new administration" or the "next president." Trump and his election victory in 2016 was referred to with a mix of shock, horror, anger, and disgust among protestors, with many remarking that his election inspired them to participate in the march. Among the most common criticisms of Trump were his Access Hollywood remarks in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women, his legislative priorities including a repeal to the ACA, his mocking of a disabled reporter, his decision to nominate Betsy DeVos as education secretary, his lack of qualifications and experience to be president, his immigration ban on populations in several countries, and concerns about his relationship with Russia. One protestor expressed several of these sentiments by writing: "I want to show my alliance and support for all of us who feel that Donald Trump is not a legitimately elected president and should not be allowed to serve. He is not educated or intelligent enough, and he has clear psychiatric problems." Strikingly, it was common for DM protestors to theorize that he possessed disabilities such as the "psychiatric problems" mentioned above, and many protestors argued that he was not qualified to be president as a result of these implied disabilities. Though Trump was never mentioned in more explicitly ableist ways in DM profiles, such as being "crazy", these profiles demonstrated a tension between protestors' support for disability rights yet stigmatization of Trump's potential disabilities that reinforced dominant beliefs that disabled individuals are unfit for positions of power. This reveals the pervasiveness of dominant discourse against disabilities, even within disability movements.
DM participants frequently expressed concern that their lives mattered the least under a Trump administration. One protestor expressed these sentiments by saying "I do not want a president who will not represent us, will not care about us, will not protect us, and furthermore will actively work against us." Participants like these suggested that Trump did not care about them because he cared more about wealthy, able-bodied citizens, and because the concerns of disabled populations were not regularly included in public discourse.
Mocking a Disabled Reporter
While Trump was criticized from a variety of angles by DM participants, one of the most common criticisms, and one uniquely focused on by DM, was his mocking of reporter Serge Kovalescki on the campaign trail in 2016. Kovalescki, who had arthrogryposis restricting his arm movement, was made fun of by Trump, with Trump using an exaggerated, slurred voice and pretending to have restricted arm mobility (Arkin, 2015). DM protestors delved into the impacts of his behavior on themselves and other disabled people, with one reflecting: "My son has a very severe form of dyslexia and ADHD and sensory issues, so at times he struggles to find the right words or pick up on all the correct social cues, but he works really hard to overcome his disabilities. My son knew that Trump was mocking people like him."
Trump's mocking of Kovalescki felt for many protestors like a reinforcement of hegemonic beliefs that disabled populations were inferior and deserving of ridicule. For some protestors, Trump's behavior expressed to them that Trump did not care about or value disabled people. One protestor wrote: "I am worried that the Trump administration provides several threats to people with disabilities. He is willing to mock us, he is anti-science, and he is likely to slow important health research with his cabinet's conservative stance." As disabled populations were specifically targeted and implicated by Trump's remarks, protestors used DM as a space through which they could talk about this behavior's impact on them, and in particular the ways in which Trump stigmatized disabled people and demonstrated a lack of care for disability issues.
Trump's Bragging about Sexual Assault
Trump's Access Hollywood tape, which was unveiled during the 2016 presidential election campaign and wherein Trump claimed that he would "grab them [women] by the pussy" was another major target. One profile remarked: "MY PUSSY IS NOT UP FOR GRABS!! #nastywoman" DM protestors would often disclose their own experiences with sexual assault and remarked that Trump's endorsement of sexual assault made him unfit for the White House. Similarly, another said: "I am appalled by a pussy grabbing President." Several participants inferred that Trump was a rapist based off of his remarks. While strong responses to Trump's tape were common in several contingents of the Women's March, DM protestors often spoke about how his tape inspired them to find some way to participate. Many protestors, for instance, would state that they had to find a way to participate, despite their disabilities, because of what Trump said.
When returning to RQ1: "How do DM profiles place individual perspectives in conversation with the disability rights movement?", the four major themes uncovered among DM profiles reveal an enormous range of identities engaging with contemporary issues including health care, civil rights, and women's rights. This study demonstrates that many of these individuals would never have been able to attend the Women's March were it not for DM. DM participants not only disclosed their disabilities to explain why they were unable to attend the Women's March in person, but their disclosure often brought to light the ways in which physical social movements are inaccessible to disabled populations and the day-to-day experiences of disabled people, therefore challenging the disability rights movement to facilitate more perspectives. In this way, DM functioned as counterhegemonic to ableism. A variety of disabled populations were able to provide compelling narratives on how possible health care cuts threatened their own lives. Moreover, they were able to discuss their opposition to President Trump, and, in particular, the ways that his mocking of a disabled reporter directly impacted them and those around them. Studying these themes, among others, advances disability rights discourse by suggesting that the thousands of perspectives in DM may implicate a broader discussion of domestic and international policy by disabled populations in the U.S. through disability activism.
DM, as this study shows, is simultaneously an expression of solidarity and unity among thousands of protestors, yet unlike physical protests, it provided individual expression for each protestor by giving users a chance to develop their own profile description. This is in many ways responsive to the concerns raised by those such as Conejo (2013) and Shakespeare & Watson (2002) that disability movements have neglected individual experiences in the name of unity and legislative change. Instead, aided by CDT, this analysis of DM focused on the variety of individual stories and perspectives that each participant was able to include. The digital nature of DM and its ability to archive profiles allows each user to continue to virtually protest long after the site was closed to new entries. In this way, DM simultaneously unified many disabled individuals while giving each participant their own space to express their identity that can continue to be linked, posted to Facebook, or Tweeted long after the conclusion of the protest. DM, therefore, promoted new forms of knowledge from multiple disabled people.
The layout of DM, and in particular, the captions to each of the profile photos, provide greater accessibility on the website for disabled populations, including those who are blind (Disability March, 2017). That being said, Huang and Guo's (2005) concerns are nevertheless important, as barriers including access to online spaces may still inhibit many disabled perspectives from online participation. Instead, DM may pave the way for social movements to incorporate a greater array of disabled individuals. Economic barriers, including access to a stable internet connection, may also limit the participation of disabled people in movements such as DM.
When returning to RQ2: "How does Disability March function as a unique form of cyberprotest?", it is found that DM fundamentally reshapes what it means to "attend" and "march" in contemporary protests: consistent with CDT's efforts to reshape language surrounding disability (Devlin & Pothier, 2006), participation in protest can be thought of beyond embodied attendance to include virtual demonstrations that accommodate disabled populations. This study indicates that DM also advances discourse on disability rights by centering the populations who are most likely to be affected by policy changes under the Trump administration. With substantial changes to health care likely to continue in the next several years as well as cultural attitudes regarding disability evolving, DM provides an example of how the relatively young disability rights movement may engage with other social movements while still focusing on the perspectives of disabled populations. As disabling conditions continue to restrict many from public dialogue, avenues such as DM may become an important outlet for civil participation specifically and cyberprotest generally. Some, such as Kristofferson (2014) have written about the concerns of "slacktivism", or of engaging in social media for protest in lieu of public demonstrations or more active change. DM simultaneously exposes the potential of social movements to create powerful changes through cyberprotest, and this study challenges the concept of "slacktivism" as one rooted in ableism because it assumes the capacity of individuals to attend public demonstrations and certain forms of protest that may not be available to disabled populations. Rather, online settings are instead an important space for engaging with new forms of knowledge.
The growing role of social media and online movements toward social change is clearly evident in DM, as the protest received significant media attention. DM drastically increased in popularity over just a few days (Disability March, 2017), which point to the ability of online disability movements to spread quickly through the use of digital outlets. Despite this, however, DM specifically lacked a major response by Trump or Republican members of Congress, highlighting the continued challenges of disability exposure in contemporary policy issues. Nevertheless, it can be determined that DM advances disability rhetoric by placing disability issues within a broader conversation on upcoming policy priorities. Moreover, these movements have the potential to invite more societal change by continuing to expose populations to disabled points of view that may otherwise be unknown. The profiles demonstrated a range of experiences, from young, first-time protestors to those who had protested since the Vietnam War. Each contributed to broader exposure of disability issues while being able to express themselves in a variety of ways.
This study is limited by a few factors. First, while the four major themes emerged from DM profiles and represented some of the most common rhetoric present in the movement, there are numerous other arguments and perspectives which emerged that did not fit under the themes and may deserve consideration in future studies. As a qualitative study, this work is also limited by my own subjectivity and interpretation of the results: because I noticed particular themes from profiles, these may differ from other interpretations that researchers observe. Additionally, the use of NVivo software may limit the study because themes were developed by particular patterns in words and phrases that may warrant closer analyses of how particular phrases and expressions operated together. Further, the qualitative nature of the study limits its transferability to other research. Lastly, because this study focused on the written profile descriptions, other aspects, such as the photos, were not included, in part to protect protestor's privacy.
Suggestions for Further Research
Given the heightened importance of examining disabled identities and addressing the role of critical research in disability studies, numerous opportunities for future research exist within and outside of DM. First, DM profiles are rich for additional study. In particular, though the photos and photo captions were not analyzed for this study, they contain protest signs, art, photos of disabilities, and other such media. In conversation with studies related to digital media imagery, the use of visual media in DM is symbolically rich. Quantitative DM research, including content analysis, may also be helpful to analyze specifics in word usage. Additionally, the organizational layout of DM and its accessibility to disabled populations as a website could spur future study as well, and critical work can continue to assess the relationship between the individual profiles and the overall site. Media effects research may also be able to assess the effectiveness of cyberprotest research, including how individuals may respond to digital disability narratives. These types of studies would assist in understanding how protests like DM might persuade individuals.
Outside of DM, future research should continue to examine the role of disability cyberprotest. Studies of the hashtag #CripTheVote to mobilize 2016 presidential election turnout, along with efforts including the Disability Visibility Project and other forms of social media can continue to assess what types of disability protest rhetoric are emerging, how this rhetoric functions, and what its effects might be on changing cultural attitudes and mobilization regarding policy action. The DM website even includes a link on how individuals can create their own disability march (Disability March, 2017), meaning that future online disability movements may follow a similar structure as DM. With health care likely to remain a major topic of political discussion, mobilization around this particular issue may be important for future study. While new media studies have become increasingly important for academic research, their intersection with disability social movements are particularly unique in promoting new forms of accessibility and new forms of disability protest that were previously impossible.
Additionally, further research should heed Conejo's (2013) call for greater examination of disability in intersectional contexts. While DM profiles allowed individuals to relate disability to aspects including their racial identity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, and class, among many other factors, still more research should examine how disability might, for instance, disproportionately marginalize women of color. These studies, which might include interviews, ethnographies, or further analyses of social movements, are essential to place disability as a social justice issue in conversation with other forms of marginalization.
For many protestors, such as the one quoted at the beginning of this article, DM was more than just a chance to speak up about disability rights and participate in the Women's March on Washington. In fact, as this previously quoted profile described, DM was a chance for individuals to acknowledge and confront their disabilities. Many DM profiles reflect similar sentiments, as participants were able to draw from their personal experiences with their disabilities to explain how their lives were in jeopardy with future dangers in the health care system. For disabled populations, participation in online cyberprotest may be more than just an opportunity for greater awareness and structural change: it may also be an essential survival strategy.
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