4 tips for interacting with people with disabilities on social media

Social Media for the Disabled


A recent National Public Radio article on how social media affects teenagers is just one perspective on what has become almost simply accepted truth. This means that Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok, YouTube and whatever is going to be the next big thing in social media are alluring and somewhat liberating, but fundamentally dangerous and corrosive.

The article points out ominous signs and offers several warnings. But it also recognizes some real benefits that teens and people of all ages can reap from social media. Social media seems to encourage some of the worst communication habits and short-circuit our analytical and nuanced thinking skills. At the same time, these internet-based applications are connecting people around the world like never before, offering marginalized, oppressed people a stronger voice in public discourse.

The same pros and cons certainly apply to people with disabilities on social media. A particularly important question for disabled people. Does social media open up life at large to more social interaction and richer experiences, or does it encourage more isolation by making it seem less restrictive than the traditional physical isolation that people with disabilities have so often experienced? Does social media also increase social connection and positive affirmation? Or is it simply reinforcing the same old bullying, ridicule, and other forms of ableism that have always plagued people with disabilities?

It is too easy and too much to condemn social media in a blanket way. And for many disabled people it is impractical and unthinkable at this point in time to swear off social media altogether, even if it sometimes seems healthier. So that raises a question for all of us, especially for people who are not disabled. What can we do to make social media a more positive environment for people with disabilities?

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Don’t force unsolicited advice.

…even if you’re sure it’s brilliant and essential.

One of the most common annoyances people with disabilities experience is being inundated with advice from people who are enthusiastic and confident but actually know little about the lives of disabled people. For example:

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Promoting healthy lifestyle advice and alternative treatments – such as special diets rumored to help relieve autism, trendy new therapies, herbal remedies, meditation routines and yoga, and just plain healthier eating for everyone’s favorite panacea, weight loss. Guidance on how to deal ‘right’ with ableistic comments and discrimination – mostly advice to calm down, let insults roll off us and understand that people are usually uninformed and not mean, with the added implication that disabled people are to blame are polite to “educate” others about disability. Lectures on what terminology to use – either asking disabled people not to be picky about whether people say “disabled”, “special needs” or “disabled” – or a non-disabled person who once attended a seminar on the Disability awareness campaign, which aggressively berates us for calling ourselves ‘disabled’ rather than ‘disabled’.

This kind of advice may sometimes be right and appropriate. But more often it’s promoted so indiscriminately and aggressively that it has become one of the most feared social media phenomena by people with disabilities. The best way to avoid this particular kind of trouble is to make sure you don’t get into conversations where you believe your idea has the power to change a disabled person’s life for the better. Better yet, only give advice to a disabled person if they specifically ask for it.

2. Amplify the voices of disabled people.

… before adding your own.

More disabled people are being seen and heard on disability issues than ever before. But, by and large, they still struggle to be noticed, heard, and respected. Non-disabled people still have a disproportionately strong voice in the disability discourse. This includes doctors, scientists, therapists, teachers – i.e. people with ID. But it mainly includes parents and families of disabled children, siblings and spouses. Of course families of disabled people have their own perfectly valid perspective on disability. But that is still stretched too often to make them unappointed spokespersons for the disabled people in their lives, and even what all disabled people need. This feeds the idea that disabled people are not reliable interpreters of our own experiences and need able-bodied people to vouch for us.

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The best way to avoid contributing to this “persuasion” phenomenon is to raise the voice of disabled people. For now, don’t say what people with disabilities are already saying unless you really have something new to add. maybe you do But ask yourself first and answer honestly – am I just repeating myself here in hopes of getting praise? Do I have a different opinion because I just can’t help it? Or do I really have something to say? If the answer to any of these questions is “maybe yes,” then let what people with disabilities say stand without comment or modification. It’s the least you can do, but it’s actually a lot.

Additionally, most social media platforms have tools to help you show support by promoting what people with disabilities are saying as directly as possible and without unnecessary comment. “Like and share.” Let the original author’s voice carry the message. Don’t try to say it better yourself. Comment if you have something to add, not to disagree. And if you feel compelled to discuss, ask if you can discuss the topic privately and respect the disabled person’s response.

3. Remember that it’s almost always okay to just say nothing.

…because not every comment or question requires an answer from you.

People with disabilities, like everyone else, are justifiably concerned about being harassed, insulted and socially punished on social media. So try to avoid this kind of criticism and comment as much as possible:

Small, pedantic matters—like grammar and terminology, or precise, minute rules on some aspect of Social Security eligibility or the Americans with Disabilities Act. Changing the topic – For example, criticizing the topic itself, saying that another topic is more important, or bringing up completely unrelated stories or ideas. For example, when a disabled person tells a story of severe discrimination in the workplace, people often respond with stories about how uncomfortable they felt after being in a cast for three months and unable to walk. Or, instead of engaging in a discussion about disability pride, someone might angrily insist that talking about health care or benefit policies is much more important. Respect the topic. If you think it doesn’t matter, go ahead. Ad hominem attacks – including attributing any discrimination based on disability and accessibility barriers to the person you are dealing with, or just being personally rude and dismissive when it comes to an idea, policy or action, with which you have a problem. Don’t attack the person, discuss ideas.

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Disagreeing with something someone says doesn’t oblige you to correct or argue with them. Sometimes the best way to buck a conversation or social media trend is not to engage in taking its attention.

4. Refresh logical fallacies.

If you decide it’s time to really discuss important issues, this fallacies site is a good place to visit first. It’s a good resource to improve the quality of online discussions. But a few logical fallacies are particularly common in discussions about disabilities. For example:

Personal Disbelief – When a non-disabled person simply doesn’t believe that a disabled person’s situation could possibly be as bad as they say it is. Slippery Slope – Arguing that meeting certain reasonable requirements, such as accessible businesses or home care funding, will produce inappropriate outcomes, such as the state. No True Scotsman – insisting that someone who lacks certain narrow and stereotyped characteristics of autism cannot be autistic – that disabled people who are not as expectedly impaired, helpless and wretched should therefore not be considered disabled.

None of these are hard and fast rules. None of them alone can ensure that social media spaces are safe and disabled-friendly at all times. But they can be simple, easy-to-remember and implement ways for able-bodied people, particularly to make a good-faith effort to welcome and uplift people with disabilities into online discourse and culture.