How we can change that sad reality

Jennifer E. Engen

One afternoon, as I scrolled through my favorite time-suck app, TikTok, a video of a user with a disability dancing to a trending song surfaced on my For You Page. As I read some of the thousands of comments left under the user’s video, my blood boiled at the mindless harassment and belittling rhetoric targeted at the user’s disability. Social media only served to further the commenters’ hostility: behind the cowardice of their anonymous, private TikTok accounts, these internet bullies were protected from any form of repercussions for their actions. After tirelessly fighting back against this ableism, the user eventually turned off their comment section.

Ableism, as defined by the Center for Disability Rights, “is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other.” Digital ableism is when this discrimination, prejudice or devaluation of disabled people occurs online, whether on social media apps, online forums or websites. Digital ableism has worsened since the explosion of the digital age at the turn of the century, expanding far beyond the cyberbullying of social media users with disabilities. Inaccessible digital platforms have hindered many people’s ability to equitably participate in online resources, resulting in thousands of lawsuits against companies such as Netflix and Five Guys who failed to make their website accessible to all of their customers.

Social media platforms have dramatically exacerbated the inequality faced by users with disabilities by inadvertently structuring their algorithms to mimic the implicit biases held by developers. For example, one Twitter algorithm that cropped pictures to focalize on faces was discovered to be actively exercising implicit bias, selectively cropping out faces of people with disabilities, older people, non-white people and users who wore head coverings. TikTok also admitted to using an algorithm that suppressed content they deemed “vulnerable to cyberbullying” — i.e. “Disabled people or people with some facial problems such as birthmark, slight squint and etc.” — rather than punishing or banning users who cyberbullied these creators.

Casual ableism in the digital age: From cyberbullying to hiring discrimination

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