frontline issue 3

Disabled netters

Alister Black looks at the impact of the web on disabled activists

There are many on the left who remain unconvinced about the value of using the web as a means of political organisation. But for many disabled activists the web has transformed their political work. Activists who use wheelchairs are not always able to get to every meeting because of problems with transport and inaccessible venues. If you are blind or have a visual impairment you may have difficulties reading the latest leaflets, papers and chunky internal documents. The independence that most socialists take for granted is not available to disabled activists, at least not without a fight. Computers and the Internet are not a panacea for these problems, but they have been a useful tool for disabled activists to communicate, network and agitate. Use of new technology helps create a level playing-field for disabled comrades to contribute to the struggle.

What disabled activists think

In preparing this article I put out an e-mail questionnaire which was distributed around leftist and disability activism e-mail lists. The answers I received helped illustrate how activists use the Internet as a tool to get their work done more effectively.

E-mail and websites enable often isolated disabled people to meet others in the same situation. This networking leads to campaigning and some very effective actions. One activist 'Dot' told me "It took me from a very isolating experience and lone politics to movement activism. Word travels very quickly on the net and people can come together to do direct actions either physically or by internet, post or phone."

Commonly used lists include DANMail and Disability Awareness Websites such as detail impressive campaigns, such as the internationally co-ordinated campaign in October 2000, which saw Russian wheelchair users invade the Moscow Metro demanding accessibility These resources have advantages and drawbacks, as they do generally. Bruce told me "Amongst the disabled it enables debate. It circulates news. It facilitates bonding through humour and consciousness-raising. It can also be a self-indulgent snipe, moan and "bitch" (as a verb) session, which is disillusioning to encounter." These resources can work well if properly focused but the information-overload that sometimes results can be overwhelming. Bruce noted "many disabled people have to conserve their energy and only have limited time and opportunity for activism, when daily living and dealing with carers and their managers is such a struggle." Of course there are various ideologies in the disabled movement. What has information technology done for disabled socialists particularly? Andy Jackson was the SSP candidate against Chancellor Gordon Brown in the general election. He is also visually impaired. He told me: "The way in which computers aid my political activism is in relation to the reading of documents. Up until the arrival of e-mails I was unable to access political documents as they were in print format which I could not access." Voice synthesiser software can scan computer files and read them out, whilst Andy can contribute to e-mail debates on SSP and ISM lists. Andy says: "Since being able to access documents through e-mails my contributions at both branch meetings and public meetings have improved significantly as I am informed about events and political perspectives."

However some websites are easier to access than others. Badly laid out sites can give problems to voice software and users who can only use the keyboard. You can check the accessibility of your site automatically at the "bobby" web site Most leftist web-sites including our own have some way to go. 'Angela' told me: "Generally, I have to edit sites and e-mail to make the type legible for me." Think about that when designing your Flash plug-in front-page masterpiece.

New legislation in the USA now forces government websites to be accessible. When web-browsers and WYSIWYG editors become 'standards-compliant' they will make the web more accessible. Monopoly capitalism is an obstacle to this, most notably the attempts by Microsoft to ignore standards in order to make their software the de facto standard.

Many of those I spoke to had only recently started to use these online resources. The full impact of the web on disabled activism may not have been felt yet.

*Thanks to John, Andy, Dot, Bruce and Angela for their help with this article.