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Disability influencers on Instagram have one loud message. They don’t exist to inspire you

This club of influencers resides within very high walls, and not by their own choice. Even algorithms are not on their side.

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Kavya, a 24-year-old disabled social media influencer, posted a video recently on her Instagram — of herself spending a day out at Select City Walk mall in Delhi. From enjoying music to food to chilling with her family, her caption read, “That’s what access feels like. It’s liberating, it’s empowering, it’s joy.”

What Kavya did was more than just spend a day at the mall, she shifted the conversation and the gaze on disability. On Instagram reels, there is a new push for ways of seeing people with disabilities and an unwillingness to be trophies of excellence for temporarily able-bodied people.

Kavya’s aim with this post was not to inspire or prove that she can have a beautiful day. Her hope is to simply be her ‘self’

For far too long, persons with disability have been seen as the forerunners of everyday inspiration and motivation. Comments such as “It is incredible that you are doing this” or “You’re not disabled, you’re specially abled,” among a few other patronising ones, flood their comments section. 

“My identity should not solely exist to inspire an able-bodied person. I have my own identity and it can be filled with joy too,” another disabled social media influencer Gauri Gupta, 21, told ThePrint. And that’s exactly what she tries to portray on her social media accounts.

As a writer and digital creator who is also pursuing law, she breaks down a lot of topics, such as the intersection of disability with sex, body shaming, and mental health.

Nu, 24, who runs a queer disabled collective called Revival Disability, narrates the time when, in school, they were given an award for courage. Calling the entire concept ‘ridiculous,’ they said that they were hailed as ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ for going about their daily lives as a disabled person. “When you are disabled, it is almost like you owe people motivation for going about your everyday life,” she added.

Her online collective is an explosion of art, pop culture, memes, and a tinge of education on the subject. From breaking down definitions and experiences to supporting the art sales of those who are queer and neurodivergent, Nu set out to simply string stories together.

Shedding tags such as ‘Divyang’ or ‘differently-abled’ is just the beginning of their endeavour. As they reclaim power and a voice, they want to put aside any special treatment and get back their own personhood as well, which is not limited by their disability. “The more we raise awareness, the more acceptance will come,” said Karan Shah, a canine behaviourist who found his love for activism after he got an assistance dog who changed his life. He was famous on TikTok, with 1.3 million followers, and is now on Instagram.

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‘We don’t yet feel included’ 

One of the biggest challenges for these activists is to fit into these social media spaces and be seen as more than just ambassadors of hope. Even though their content and work are met with goodwill from those who are able-bodied, they still need to chart a path to turn that condescension into informed acceptance. But that is not easy, because many still lack the everyday language to engage.

Kavya, speaking on behalf of disabled social media activists, said that while everyone wants to be on social media, most disabled folks do not feel included there. “A lot of people think our content is still something that is not for them,” she added. Even though it is being consumed, it is appreciated under the garb of pity generating comments like, ‘I don’t see your disability, I see you.’

Kavya is fond of making memes to dabble in her activism and is a big pop-culture fan. Her posts about those TV show characters who are also persons with disabilities resonate well with her audience. Her thread on living a ‘DIY Life’ reads like a personal diary.

She also wrote and sang a popular disability jingle, which seems to reflect her desire to be accepted for who she is. “The next time you see me rolling out in the street (on a wheelchair), don’t stop and stare, just say hi and greet,” she sings. 

But these jingles or posts, very rarely land on your Explore page. This club of influencers resides within very high walls, and not by their own choice. Algorithms are not on their side. 

Abhishek Anicca, a researcher, writer, and performer who identifies as a person with disability, commented on the culture of social media access for those who are disabled.

“Disability conversations are still not as accessible or even palatable as some other marginalised discourses like queerness are. Unless you actively search for disability content, you will not find it,” Abhishek added. Gauri too thinks that even the social media algorithms work only to promote a certain body type. “If you follow a particular trend, you’ll barely find any content that displays content from those who are disabled. It points to a systemic problem,” she stated.

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Hierarchy persists 

Nu and Abhishek both agree that the social media space is dominated by influencers from urban cities, as is the case with social media. Reels have a stylesheet of ‘the privileged’, an understanding of the medium, and even the right background of homes and furnishings.

“My space Revival also has a fairly urban feel. I think this happens because this is more convenient for the able-bodied gaze,” Nu said. 

Another hierarchy is blaring on social media. Most of these influencers are wheelchair users, which for a long time has remained an acceptable marker of disability. “Wheelchairs are seen as more palatable on social media to able-bodied people rather than those who crawl, drag their feet, or drool,” Abhishek suggested.

While there are a few region-based groups on Facebook, composed of persons with other disabilities, their work isn’t activism, or even being recognised in the public eye. It’s just close-knit communities that help each other out.

“People on social media accept those using wheelchairs easily, as compared to other disabled people. That is how we come to the forefront,” said Karan, who also uses a wheelchair. He often likes to crack jokes about his own impairment and has grown comfortable with it.

One of his reels is captioned “Let’s get ready for a stand-up comedy! Oops! I meant sit-down comedy”. But not all of Karan’s content has to do with his life growing up as a person with disability. He joins the general bandwagon of reels as he posts videos about missing exes or red flags in girlfriends, making him a hit and even receiving marriage proposals for his content creation. 

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The gender divide

It’s clear that not enough disabled men take the spotlight on social media compared with women. Abhishek suggests this is because they choose not to be vulnerable. But the gender divide runs far deeper than that. 

Gauri narrates instances of being ridiculed for putting on makeup, dressing well, or just posting pictures of herself hanging out with her friends on social media. “There is a certain way people want other people to be disabled. It’s like you have to prove your disability”. She has often received comments such as “You are too independent to be disabled” or “Do you actually even have a disability?” for her woke and modern approach.

Karan, on the other hand, has claimed that he has always received a lot of love. “I don’t think they are trying to nag us. They just lack knowledge,” he said.

But it doesn’t take too long for the niceties to descend into open hostility and gendered microaggressions.

When Nu was approached by a man on Instagram who was interested in them, their refusal of his advances was met with the comment, “These disabled queer people are just so weird.”

Through trending reels, memes, and long carousels explaining ‘crip time’ or ‘spoon theory’ — their activism is self-preservation, storytelling, and education. Their work is a front for a movement and an inward reflection at the same time, something that comes with a lot of learning and unlearning for everyone.

“A lot of unlearning is required for able-bodied people about us. But we don’t want to place any blame. When I was younger, I did not know much better either,” said Gauri.

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

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