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Disability activists, amplified: Social media gets the job done

As protests erupt over President Trump's policies, disability activists are taking to social media to ensure that the demonstrations are accessible to all.

Rebecca Cunningham

This is part of CNET's "Tech Enabled" series about the role technology plays in helping the disability community.

Mia Ives-Rublee is getting used to maneuvering her wheelchair through a sea of legs at protests.

For Ives-Rublee, who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, commonly known as brittle bone disease, exercising her right to protest in public is not easy. At a protest over President Donald Trump's immigration ban at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Sunday, the 32-year-old social worker-turned-activist had to hunt for curbs with ramps to even enter the building. She jockeyed for position to hold up her sign to arriving passengers that read, "All are welcome."

A week earlier, Ives-Rublee was in Washington, attending the Women's March demonstration. Rolling through the crowd in a sea of knitted pink "pussyhats," Ives-Rublee said she was reminded of the many fights her mother had with school administrators to make sure she and her two siblings, who also have disabilities, were included in their community.

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Mia Ives-Rublee, right, joins the protest over President Donald Trump's immigration ban at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport on January 29.

Mia Ives-Rublee

Ives-Rublee is proof that a disability doesn't silence your voice. Through social media, people with disabilities can more easily organize and participate in demonstrations. Thanks in part to Ives-Rublee, who spearheaded the effort on Facebook to make the Women's March in Washington more accessible, more than 45,000 people out of the half a million who attended had a disability.

"Throughout history, communities have often left people with disabilities at home," Ives-Rublee said. "We are often seen as burdens to families, communities, and societies. We have become the invisible minority."

It's not an insignificant minority. More than 50 million people, or one in five Americans, are disabled, according to the US census. Yet it's a group that has historically been ignored by politicians and overlooked by civil rights advocates, said David Perry, a historian and journalist who covers disability issues.

There are logistical complications. Making public rallies accessible can be difficult. People with mobility issues may not be able to use steps or to stand for long periods. Closed-captioning or sign language interpreters may be needed, or guides for the blind. Others may not be able to handle being in large crowds.

"If activism is about being present for marches or protests, it's hard for a community of people who may not be able to physically get to those events to be heard or seen," Perry said.

So Ives-Rublee started the Women's March on Washington -- Disability Caucus Facebook page, an offshoot of the Women's March on Washington, the Facebook group that started organizing the march shortly after the presidential election. The intent for the Disability Caucus page was to provide a forum for people with disabilities to get relevant information on things such such as helpful accommodations.

The WMW-Disability Caucus Facebook group, which has more than 3,000 members, is looking to keep the momentum going. Ives-Rublee is using Facebook and Twitter to post calls to action for issues important to the disability community, like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and changes to Medicaid. The effort is part of a broader strategy Democrats are calling the #resistance, which aims to kick up a storm of protests in public spaces and online.

Power of the internet

Even before the Women's March and the election of Donald Trump, disability advocates had been using social media to connect with each other and share their stories and educate the public.

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Mia Ives-Rublee, who helped make the Women's March on Washington accessible for people with disabilities, joins other organizers on stage there during the rally.

In 2014, Alice Wong, a San Francisco-based disability advocate, developed the Disability Visibility Project, a community partnership with StoryCorps, a national oral history organization, that lets people with disabilities tell their stories and share them publicly. The project's Facebook page has amassed more than 10,000 members. Wong, who is herself disabled, also helped co-found the hashtag #CripTheVote to engage disabled voters during the 2016 presidential race and to bring attention to policies affecting the disability community.

They include the potential repeal of the ACA, which would eliminate protections against insurers rejecting people with pre-existing conditions, which could make it difficult for many to get health insurance. Possible changes to Medicaid could curtail spending on programs that serve the disability community.

Wong said social media has been an important forum for highlighting these issues and mobilizing the disability community.

"Because social media is very public, there is a way to get messages out widely to policymakers and the non-disabled public without a filter," she said in an email interview this week.

Wong said that online activism and in-person events like the protests over the immigration bans go hand-in-hand.

"Online activism shouldn't be seen as a 'more accessible' option," she said. "Every organizer who plans a conference, town hall, march, or anything should make every effort to have disabled people involved in the planning process at the very beginning for authentic and meaningful inclusion."

Looking toward the future

Ives-Rublee said she wants to build on the success of the Women's March. The Disability Caucus' discussion page was originally set up to provide information on the march, but it now encourages its followers to call their US senators and representatives to protect the interests of the disability community.

The page also includes posts that give those who can't get to protests a way to engage with what's happening. There is a Facebook Live feed on which Zaineb Abdulla from Chicago-based advocacy group Deaf Planet Soul interpreted all of Saturday's demonstration at the Chicago O'Hare International Airport into American Sign Language. Another post encourages followers to support protestors of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which Trump reinstated last week in an executive order.

Ives-Rublee acknowledges that making protests more accessible won't be easy. Providing necessary accommodations takes time and money, resources that are in short supply in grassroots community organizing.

Still, she said that disability organizations, which have been calling on the Trump administration to be more inclusive, can't use this as an excuse. Her group is trying to recruit American Sign Language interpreters around the country who can help when protests and rallies pop up. They're reaching out to other groups to find ways to help.

"While online spaces are a wonderful way for people with disabilities to participate, we cannot be relegated to just that space," she said. "Remember, separate is never equal."