Editor’s Note: Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Glamour and Racked, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
The next time you report a Twitter troll for polluting your timeline, you might notice an additional word on the reporting form.
It’s just one word. One we’ve seen thousands of times before. In fact, if you weren’t looking closely at the form in the frenetic moments of reporting a tweet, you might not even notice it.
But make no mistake: This change is no small feat. It’s a long overdue win in what seemed like a never-ending battle, one that people with disabilities like myself have been fighting online for years. Thankfully, Twitter joined that fight earlier this month when it revised its reporting form to include hate directed at people with disabilities.
“It’s against our rules to directly attack or threaten someone based on their protected category, including disability,” Twitter said in a tweet posted April 2. “You asked us to clarify this in our reporting flow, and we’ve updated it to be more specific.”
The change is thanks to Natalie Weaver, who called on Twitter to revise its reporting form after her daughter’s photo was used in an offensive tweet promoting eugenics. Her daughter, Sophia, has Rett syndrome, a genetic brain disorder that affects such things as language, walking and coordination. At first, Weaver told the website The Mighty, Twitter refused to take down the tweet, but eventually changed course, removing the offending account entirely.
The message rang loud and clear: This sort of hateful, ableist content will not be tolerated; in fact, it has no place on the social media platform.
As Weaver told The Mighty: “Many people with medical conditions and/or disabilities receive hate and harassment every day on Twitter and no violations are found. I am hopeful that this change will create a safer environment for people with medical conditions and disabilities.”
I’ve been on the receiving end of this damaging and destructive hate speech for years. I was born with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a rare genetic bone and muscular disorder; it affects everything from my joints to my physical appearance. I’ve been called ugly, a monster, compared to a blob (picture of said blob included next to my profile picture) and in one particular tweet, which was the most stinging of all, one user suggested I was a “thing” and should be euthanized.
The only user to get the ban hammer? The one who said I should be euthanized. All the other accounts, Twitter told me, didn’t violate the Twitter rules.
I’m an accomplished freelance writer and blogger. But online, and especially on Twitter, I’m reduced to an object – literally, a thing to be mocked, ridiculed and shamed. My physical appearance is what those Twitter trolls pounce on. Immediately.
Maybe they can sense that I’ve struggled with self-confidence surrounding my disability in the past? Maybe they figure it took me a while to come to terms with my disability (spoiler alert: It did)? Maybe they just know where to hit me to make it hurt just a little bit more? Or maybe they’re just sad, pathetic people unhappy with themselves and their own life?
I’ve asked myself these questions a lot, and, honestly, I’m not sure of the answers. But here’s what I do know: All too often, people with disabilities are overlooked when it comes to these kinds of conversations about hate speech online.
When we think of hate speech and what sorts of things constitute hate speech, we automatically think of racism and LGBTQ issues. What we don’t automatically think of are things like ableism and discrimination against people with disabilities, which are rampant in society, to be sure, but sometimes get overlooked. Consider the flippant use of the “R” word – and even a seemingly less offensive word like “cripple.” Even Disney villains usually have some sort of facial deformity, which sends the message to children from a young age that disabilities are bad and that people with disabilities are evil or monstrous.
Thankfully, though, society’s views about people with disabilities are changing, as evidenced not only by Twitter’s change in policy, but also by Apple’s plans to add 13 new disability-related emojis to its lineup. Everything from a cane to a hearing aid to a person zooming along in a wheelchair is just a starting point, Apple hinted recently, saying, “Currently, emoji provide a wide range of options, but may not represent the experiences of those with disabilities.”
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Disabilities may make people uncomfortable. I’m sure my disability and my wheelchair has made people uncomfortable in the past. But that doesn’t give people the right to use it against me and vilify me for it. Twitter’s change in policy gives me hope. Hope that perhaps, finally, we’ve moved the needle of dismantling centuries of negative misconceptions surrounding people with disabilities. We’re not monsters. We’re people. And we’re not going anywhere – on Twitter and in real life.