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Behind The Paralympics: Online Disability Campaigning

August 21, 2012

While there are fears that traditional methods of disability activism are on the wane, a new campaigning spirit is been forged using the social media revolution.

The past 18 months have seen the first flowerings of a new network of activist groups and a shared, inclusive approach that has thrust their engaging campaigning style into the public eye.

Galvanised by the government’s draconian welfare reform agenda, the new activism arguably is helping to renew a disability movement thought by some to have lost its way in recent years.

The staggering Twitter-driven success of the “We Are Spartacus” campaign in January announced the emergence of this new wave. This carefully planned viral campaign steered by a tiny band of activists almost single-handedly put the previously arcane issue of cuts in disability living allowance on the public agenda.

Winning support from celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Alastair Campbell, the campaign took both the mainstream media and government ministers by surprise, and brought disability benefit cuts to the attention of hundreds of thousands of people. Two days after it launched, the coalition lost three votes in an evening on welfare reform in the House of Lords.

By the end of the week the media – which had almost uniformly ignored the Hardest Hit march on London – the biggest ever march by disabled people, three months previously – had begun to sit up and take interest. By the end of the week, one of the leading lights of the Spartacus campaign, Sue Marsh, was live in the BBC Newsnight studio debating welfare reform with employment minister Chris Grayling. A new activism had begun.

This was not a traditional campaign – one that had started with a letter to the Guardian or a meeting a in dusty civic hall and grown through charity lobbying. It grew rapidly and lived through social media networks bringing together and giving a voice to tens of thousands of people who were excluded from mainstream media and politics.

Marsh says the approach is different from the old-style “chain ourselves to the railings” approach. It was partly a recognition that traditional activist techniques no longer guaranteed traction with politicians and the media, and partly pragmatic – the knowledge that illness or disability meant many activists were confined to their home for all or some of their life, but were able to engage productively through social media (Marsh calls it “bed-tivism”).

Twitter has given talented “accidental activists” like carer Nicky Clark the chance to change attitudes, most dramatically when she persuaded the actor Ricky Gervais to stop using the word “mong” (which she argued was an abusive term for people with Down’s syndrome). Activist Kaliya Franklin’s “ambush” of Labour leader Ed Miliband over the use of “scrounger” rhetoric (and the subsequent viral distribution of the encounter) had similar effects.

To some the Spartacus movement’s pragmatic approach may seem to lack the radical boldness or grandeur of the great campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. But as disability consultant and campaigner Jane Young points out, these are different, more defensive times, requiring different methods.

She notes that one of the most recent Spartacus campaigns has been over contentious proposals by Worcestershire county council to cap social care expenditure, potentially forcing many disabled people currently living in their own homes to move into institutional care.

It links current campaigners back with their predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s who fought so hard to win independent living for disabled people.

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