Disability FTW! Activism, Embodiment, and Online Communities

Proposal Title: 
Disability FTW! Activism, Embodiment, and Online Communities
Abstract: 

Speaker 1 analyzes the norming of women’s bodies through breast cancer narratives of overcoming, desirability, and technological determinism.

Speaker 2 examines the ways in which Autistic bloggers theorize their identities against the stereotypes promoted by clinical autism research.

Speaker 3 argues that the rhetoric of self-care on disability-themed Tumblr communities complicates many of the foundational theories about the rhetoric of social movements.

Speaker 4 takes a deconstruction approach to challenge the primacy of vocalized speech in autism discourse, especially in the context of a thriving online community of autistic self-advocates.

Speaker 5 shares the digital, in(ter)vent(ive) practices of two disabled women veterans to substantiate that a feminist disability studies lens is a crucial complement to cyberfeminist notions of the digital practices of individuals in “exploited, oppressed, and dominated groups” (Harding, 1991, p. 276)-- a category in which disabled American women veterans fall.

Proposal: 

Between 1969 and 1989 the Internet was identified as a time of disembodiment within virtual communities (Conslavo & Paasonen, 2002). Yet, particularly with cyberfeminist research in the 1990s (Haraway 1985, 1991; Turkle 1995, 1999) and beyond (Blair & Takayoski 1999; Blair 2012; Blair, Gajjala, & Tulley 2008) digital scholars began exploring how identities are constructed and shaped through cyber interactions. This attention to identity construction rejected the idea that the Internet could be a virtual space of immaterial bodies and sameness. Indeed, the comments section of any YouTube video immediately reveals that bodies and identities still dictate much of virtual discussion, and through harassment and scrutiny, offline hierarchies are often replicated in the digital public sphere (Alexander 2014). And yet, the unavoidable materialization of bodies in virtual spaces has also provided spaces for community, coalition, and resistance building (Haas 2008; LeCourt 1999). This roundtable highlights the multiple ways disability and disabled bodies are communicated in online spaces, in both oppressive and empowering ways. Panelists reject the romanticization of a body-less, identity-less virtual world and instead look to mindbody-centric online discourse as an opportunity for invention, critique, and protest. In particular, panelists examine the ways in which disabled activists complicate, subvert, and transform digital spaces and rhetorical traditions. 

Speaker 1: Cancer Rhetoric & the Abnormality of Disabled Women’s Bodies

Breast cancer narratives reinscribe rhetorics of overcoming—the idea that disability is a deficit that individuals must overcome in order to fit particular norms—by emphasizing diagnosis, individual willpower (e.g., “Your life in your hands”), and promoting technological intervention (e.g., “Early detection can save your life”). Unlike general cancer discourse, breast cancer campaigns add a gendered element of disembodiment (e.g., “If only women paid as much attention to their breasts as men do”). In this presentation, Speaker 1 analyzes the norming of women’s bodies through narratives of overcoming, desirability, and technological determinism. Building on Dolmage and Lewiecki-Wilson’s (2010) claim that feminist disability studies can help us deconstruct how particular bodies are normed and deemed normal, I focus on breast cancer narratives in order to interrogate medical model assumptions about disability, women’s bodies, and the narratives we circulate about them.

Speaker 2: Rhetoric - Not Otherwise Specified

Autistic culture is largely digital: its earliest cultural texts were composed via Usenet; its theories, histories, and personal stories live on blogs; its most successful advocacy campaigns have been fueled by social media. And yet, despite this body of autistic work, autism has long functioned as a limit case in cognitive studies, purportedly representing the bounds of the human (Pinchevski, 2005). In its short clinical history, autism has routinely called into question ideas about intent, feeling, selfhood, rationality, and thought. For these reasons, and more, autism research by and large has positioned Autistic subjects as non-rhetorical beings (see Barnbaum, 2008; Frith, 2014).

In this presentation, I chart online histories of Autistic activists — specifically, the disconnects between how researchers theorize Autistic cultural texts (as idiosyncratic, arhetorical, unreliable) vs. how Autistic bloggers theorize a/Autistic identity. In doing so, I explore the ways in which theory and rhetoricity operate in a/Autistic virtual spaces, and how these practices trouble that which circulates in academe.

Speaker 3: Self-Care as Radical Practice: How Disability Communities on Tumblr Redefine Social Movements

In this presentation, I argue that the rhetoric of self-care on disability-themed Tumblr communities complicates and challenges many of the foundational theories about the rhetoric of social movements. Specifically, I address the seemingly outdated yet persisting assumptions that social movements must be confrontational (Cathcart, 1978), leader-driven (Simons, 1970), and linear (Griffin, 1952). Rhetoric promoting self-care as radical, empowered acts of resistance against ableism, sexism, and racism illustrates how outdated models of social movements can be exclusionary against people with disabilities. Furthermore, online aggregation of self-care discourse, as is facilitated by hashtags on Tumblr, creates an inclusive and accessible tapestry of texts that promote, instruct, and theorize self-care as radical practice.

Speaker 4: Can the (Autistic) Subaltern Speak?: How Digital Participation Creates the Speaking Subject

When Gayatri Spivak asked “Can the subaltern speak?”, her question encompassed not only “vocal word production” but also listening, mutual comprehension, and acceptance.  Dominant discourses on autism, however, relegate autistic individuals to subaltern status by insisting that autistic individuals who cannot vocalize are not “speaking subjects” and those who can are not “really autistic.”  Speaker 4 will challenge the demand for vocalized “speech” by deconstructing the binaries that presume vocal speech is, or ought to be, superior to technologically-assisted forms of communication like typing, AAC use, or visual works.  The outpouring of communication in autistic online communities in particular demonstrate how assumptions of subjectivity based on vocal abilities are oppressive, foolish, and outdated.

Speaker 5: Agency as In(ter)vention: Disabled women veterans on the Web

Disparaging statistics proliferated by mass media on- and offline portray disabled American women veterans as agentless victims in need of civilians’ pity. While organizations with robust online practices (e.g., Disabled American Veterans, Protect Our Defenders) attempt to combat such stigmas, a few (but powerful) women veterans have taken it upon themselves to utilize the Web for activist, coalition purposes. Speaker 5 will share the digital, in(ter)vent(ive) practices of two disabled women veterans, with particular emphasis on the personal and social barriers these women negotiate as digital activists. As Speaker 5 will substantiate, a feminist disability studies lens is a crucial complement to cyberfeminist notions of the digital practices of individuals in “exploited, oppressed, and dominated groups” (Harding, 1991, p. 276)-- a category in which disabled American women veterans fall.

Context: 
This roundtable extends the conference theme of Technoliteracy In(ter)ventions by drawing attention to issues of access and inclusion in online spaces. Highlighting the multiple ways disability and disabled bodies are communicated in online spaces, in both oppressive and inventive ways, panelists examine the ways in which disabled activists must in(ter)vent, complicate, subvert, and ultimately transform digital spaces and rhetorical traditions.
Proposal Type: 
roundtable