Below is a full-text copy of my presentation for Computers & Writing this year, titled, “Composing Disability: The Circulation of Inspirational and Counter-Representational Memes.”
Discussions of disability and computers and writing often focus on issues of access: accessible web design, assistive technologies, accommodation. Less frequently do these discussions attend to the use, or composing practices, of people with disabilities. Popular representations of disability invite overcoming and sentimental narratives. For this presentation, I’d like to reflect on a genre where these narratives often manifest: memes.
It’s impossible to ignore the proliferation of memes on social media . Our feeds are clogged with memes—shared digital images that reflect some sort of cultural element or behavior. And a common genre of memes are inspirational: the child with prosthetic legs running alongside Oscar Pistorius, a girl with Down Syndrome who joins the soccer team. Such memes blend image with text to create an urgent sense of pathos that will make us feel relief, sympathy, or pity.
There are two key issues here. First is an issue of agency, of a division between disabled people and the presumably able-bodied creators and audiences who circulate the images—a circulation that strips the disabled of their rhetorical agency. The second issue is one of community, a division among the disabled who are represented through these images.
Community is a central component of any group working toward social change. Building community is a particularly contentious issue in disability discourse because, as Deborah Little points out, disability “exists on a fluid and unstable continuum.” Disability includes such a wide range of lived experiences and material realities that it’s difficult to determine shared values.
This sense of community is further fractured by various constructions of disability that are hypermediated and rapidly circulated through social media.
For this presentation, I’d like to share some of the disability-themed memes that circulate dominant narratives on Facebook and Instagram and offer the Facebook group, “This Is What Disability Looks Like,” as a space for people to share real-life images of disability as a way to “counter messages that disability is a tragedy or inspirational” (Stevens). Disability is often composed as an individual deficit, and I hope that by focusing on memes—as genres that spark and circulate political and educational discussions—I can highlight their value as tools that give users agency and build community, challenging dominant conceptions of disability itself.
Medical Model/Dominant Discourse
So first it’s important to acknowledge the system implicated with dominant representations of disability: the medical model. Medical models of disability focus on biological manifestations of disability: what causes them, how they affect bodies, and how individuals can be treated. This biological focus is one of impairment, highlighting individual deficit and positioning disability as something that must be either cured or pitied (if cure is not an option). Medical models also rely on the knowledge of medical authorities rather than the knowledge and experiences of the disabled themselves, which raises questions about who’s included in this discourse and who has the authority to represent particular groups through these narratives.
Inspirational memes are shared thousands of times in the often-uncritical spaces of social media, so the values and arguments perpetuated by these memes are frequently consumed by viewers rather than contested. Celeste Condit writes that the practice of public discourse carries “moral import” that can anchor the values of a community (309). With inspirational memes, the humanity—or often lack of humanity—of disability becomes a moral argument for sympathy, pity, inspiration. Once these desires are shared publicly, people determine “shared moral codes” based on a sense of what they ought to do or feel (311). Rapidly circulating these moral codes establishes social norms that include and exclude particular behaviors, practices, and people.
An example of this is the organization Autism Speaks. According to their website, they’re “the nation’s largest autism science and advocacy organization, dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.”
Autism Speaks has a powerful presence in autism discourse—circulating the image of the iconic puzzle piece, driving the campaign to “light it up blue”—and they have a similarly large following on Facebook. With 1.1 millions likes, Autism Speaks circulates a range of memes, photos, and news articles that reach a wide population every day.
Recently, Autism Speaks featured the winners of an “Ink4Autism” photo challenge that asked users to share their autism tattoos. The three winners feature a knight with puzzle piece armor, a Rubik’s cube that spells out autism, and a train made of puzzle pieces that reads, “One piece at a time.” Such images perpetuate the rhetoric that autism is a puzzle. Melanie Yergeau has described the rhetoric of Autism Speaks as “what is wrong with popular autism discourse—representing autistic people as puzzling, mysterious, less-than-human entities who are ‘short a few cognitive pieces,’ who are utterly self-contained, disconnected and need to ‘fit in’” (494).
These images circulate their own social codes of autism as something that can be unlocked and overcome. When we create these codes, we rely so heavily on them that we are resistant to creating newer and—sometimes—better codes. This is precisely the issue with dominant representations of disability, which maintain a medical model that positions disability as impairment. Inspirational memes create a public argument that disability is a deficit that must either be inspirational or pitiful.
Examples of these inspirational messages can be found in memes that forward arguments about overcoming.
Disability studies scholar Simi Linton describes overcoming as a way to make a disabled person seem more competent and successful, a way to show that disability no longer limits that person, that “sheer strength or willpower has brought the person to the point where the disability is no longer a hindrance” (17).
These images are intended to invoke inspiration—whether it’s inspiration to overcome our own obstacles, to shame us for not “choosing” success, or to be inspired by these achievements.
When these images circulate, their arguments create shared understandings of disability. Although it is just as dangerous to glamorize technology, social media genres—particularly with how quickly they change and adapt—offer an example for thinking about how we can adapt and collectively craft social codes. Memes offer access to reconstructing the public (dominant) script of what disability constructions and representations are and can be.
Social Model/Counter-Representational Discourse
When medical models of disability dominate our social media, they deny agency to the disabled populations they intend to represent. The relationship between the creator (often a charity or inspirational group) and the intended (and presumably able-bodied) audience negates the presence of the disabled—the audience who is present in the image but is not granted access to their representation. Even though these memes are centered on disability, the disabled are not actually subjects here. This perpetuates what Philip Wander describes as a cycle of objectification that “discloses itself through what is and is not said about them and through actual conditions affecting their ability to speak for themselves” (370). The disabled have been marginalized and objectified socio-politically, economically, and historically—marginalization that permeates mainstream representations and affects who’s allowed to participate in this discourse.
When we look at the Oscar Pistorius meme, for example, the simple quotation, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude,” erases the material realities of millions of people. This text combined with the image—a renowned Paralympian and a young girl running with prosthetic legs—both grants and denies them access to the discourse. They are included through image, but they don’t have agency to produce the text or to be heard within the space. They are merely objects.
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes, “The history of disabled people in the Western world is in part the history of being on display, of being visually conspicuous while politically and socially erased” (56). This relates to the historical objectification and silencing of disabled populations. Garland-Thomson describes staring as an act that “creates disability as a state of absolute difference rather than simply one more variation in human form. At the same time, staring constitutes disability identity by manifesting the power relations between the subject positions of disabled and able-bodied” (57). Disability is positioned beyond the realm of human, which silences but also creates opportunity for identity formation.
This, as our panel title suggests, is an issue of access and use. The disabled need access to spaces where they can reclaim rhetorical agency and participate in the composing practices that shape how they’re represented.
Marginalized groups frequently construct alternative discourses through alternative spaces. With the meme, however, disabled groups appropriate a dominant genre in order to circulate new narratives and understandings. The circulation of these narratives can be seen through the Facebook group “This Is What Disability Looks Like.”
According to its “About” page, the group’s primary goal is to counter representations that “disability is a tragedy or inspirational” (Stevens). Specifically, “This is a visual culture project featuring images of people with disabilities that do NOT pander to sentimentality, inspiration and/or paternalism like many images that have circulated around social media of late” (Stevens). It’s a community initiative where people can submit photographs that positively represent their everyday realities.
This meme features Kalyn Heffernan, a queer hip-hop artist who has brittle bone syndrome and is a wheelchair user. In the image, Heffernan sits in her wheelchair dressed in an Adidas jumpsuit, fedora, and thick gold chain. The text reads, “This is What Disability Looks Like…Gimp Life.” The tone of the image communicates that Heffernan is not someone to be messed with—let alone pitied. Her gaze, which meets that of the viewer, flips the objectifying stare. Heffernan puts herself on display, but by doing so she is a subject in this process, rejecting the construction that she is someone who can be objectified.
Another example of this is the image of Facebook user Julia Takes Flight. She stands, hands in pockets, facing the camera with a slight scowl on her face. The text reads, “This is What Disability Looks Like… Unapologetic.” This image functions similarly to the previous one in that Julia flips the gaze, but there’s a different tone here. Whereas the text of Heffernan’s—“Gimp Life”—is a bit playful, Julia’s is more direct. The scowl on her face combined with the word “unapologetic” addresses an audience who perceives disability as something that should be pitied. The unapologetic look on Julia’s face mixed with the text, however, clearly state that this is not the intended reaction.
The image intends to make the audience feel bad, but not because the person in the image is worthy of pity or guilt, which an inspirational meme might evoke. Instead, this meme works to bridge the division between disabled subject experience and objectifying representations of disability by making the viewer question why the disabled should be pitied.
Although these two images haven’t been circulated a lot (in terms of the wide circulation that really popular memes receive), many images from this group have.
A significant image is this one of Tammy Duckworth, a disabled Iraq War veteran who was elected last November as a representative of Illinois in the US House of Representatives. This particular meme had significant circulation with 18,000 likes, 13,000 shares, and over 1,000 comments. This is particularly significant when we consider that the group itself only has 6,000 likes—so this image circulated far beyond just the people who follow this group (and, theoretically, whose values align with that of the group).
Duckworth is clearly in a position of power, which is important when we think about how representations often strip the disabled of their power—their agency.
“This Is What Disability Looks Like” offers a space for the disabled to construct their own representations: “Providing space for folks to come up with their own tag-line or language to go along with their images – gives disabled people that all too infrequent space to speak for themselves/ourselves! Let’s tell our truths, rather than have someone else. NOTHING ABOUT US, WITHOUT US!” (Stevens). It is a space for anyone to participate. Importantly, this group also identifies across the disability community, featuring “the rich diversity of our disability communities. Various disabilities, aspects of our culture, ages, etc. will be included” (Stevens). Regardless of whether they are physically or intellectually or invisibly disabled, the members of this group identify with each other across differences in reaction to the divisive rhetorical representations that they are objects worthy of sympathy or pity to show that they love, have joy, can and should marry, hold professional positions, and have civic rights.
Social media offers access to do more than simply consume information and narratives. In the example of memes, Facebook offers a space for the public to come together and collectively craft a community that draws on their histories and experiences in order to live (rather than consume) events through narrative. Memes, as a dominant and widely circulating genre, offer access for the disabled to speak for themselves about issues that affect them, positioning themselves as agents in a medium that usually strips them of that agency.