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Identity and Representation in the 2017 Disability March

Talea Anderson


In January 2017, following the election of Donald J. Trump, women around the world organized a protest march that ultimately drew approximately five million participants from a range of racial, social, and economic backgrounds, including thousands of disabled women (Clarke-Billings, 2017). The Women's March became emblematic for providing an inclusive, intersectional response to Trump's statements marginalizing immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, and other minority groups. However, the movement soon fragmented as participants began pointing out the diverse interests of those involved.

Among the critiques levied against the Women's March was that it, in some regards, overlooked the needs of those with disabilities. As an activity requiring mobility and physical stamina, the march presumed a degree of mental and physical wellbeing in participants. Although the organizers put in place a variety of accessibility measures, including ADA seating, accessible vans, ASL interpreters, and sensitivity masks, the march also drew criticism for failing to meaningfully engage with the disabled experience in its official platform, which made only two references to disabled people—most prominently, as a class of persons who burden others with their care (Women's March, n.d.; Ladau, 2017).

This framing of disability echoed the liberal response to Donald Trump's behavior toward a disabled New York Times reporter during his presidential campaign (Kessler, 2017). When Trump openly mocked journalist Serge Kovaleski, making hand gestures in imitation of his arthrogryposis, Trump's opponents quickly labeled his behavior as prejudicial, bullying, and uncouth. Images of Trump and Kovaleski juxtaposed were rapidly circulated on social media, and the Kovaleski meme became a representation of liberal outrage in the lead-up to the election ("Trump Mocks Reporter with Disability," 2015). Kovaleski's disabled body was often appropriated by the left to further its criticism of Trump's social and political position but the reporter himself rarely appeared in interviews to discuss his own perspective (#kovaleski, 2017; databob, 2015). His victimization proved a convenient talking point, but there was little true engagement with the underlying political and socioeconomic structures that serve to exclude or dismiss people like him. For those examining these two public acts of protest against Donald Trump—the Women's March and the Kovaleski incident—they might reasonably conclude that the liberal opposition had less interest in inclusivity than in making use of disability as a convenient proxy for uniting the left in common feelings of outrage and pity. Rather than convening a dialogue with disabled people, these protests encouraged conversations about disabled people.

A tweet reads: 'Trump needs to man up and apologize for mocking #kovaleski but, of course, he won't.' Images below the tweet show Kovaleski and Trump side by side, the reporter with a curled up hand and Trump imitating the gesture while making a mocking facial expression.
Figure 1: A tweet on January 9, 2017, showing Trump mocking Kovaleski's physical appearance

This context partially informs the rise of an alternative protest—the Disability March—designed for disabled people who could not physically participate in the Women's March. Participants in this online "march" were invited to post images and text explaining why they wanted to be seen protesting the incoming administration. The leaders of the protest—described as "a small ad-hoc group of writers and organizers"—posted 3,014 protest profiles between December 21, 2016, and January 29, 2017 (Disability March, "About Us," 2017). They subsequently left the profiles online as a record of the event.

The Disability March invited critical attention to the idea of participation in social justice campaigns. In keeping with work by Marsha Mirza, Susan Magasi, and Joy Hammel (2016), the march demonstrated that political participation is a construct that often fails to acknowledge material and structural limitations that dictate the involvement of people in protest. By challenging normative ideas about how political protest should look, the Disability March came to represent an attempt at greater inclusivity. As an artifact made up of images and text, it invited readers to define or redefine their ideas about disability while perusing the narratives created by protestors (Ellis, 2015; Ellis & Goggin, 2015; Goodley, Hughes, & Davis, 2012).

This webtext considers how the participants in the Disability March chose to represent themselves and their disabilities in the context of the protest in early 2017. As a group of people who exercised their own agency in selecting images and text to describe themselves, the participants in the march provide rich counter-narratives to images like the Kovaleski–Trump memes on social media. Using close and distant readings, this webtext considers the profiles in the Disability March with specific attention to the linguistic and visual cues used in personal statements. These readings highlight the multiple experiences that fall under the heading of "disability" and point to the diverse ways in which people may wish to represent their disabilities to others. As an additional analytical layer, this webtext also considers the accessibility of the Disability March website. Like the ADA seating and sensitivity masks at the Women's March, the accessibility of the site communicates something about the desired participation in and audience for the protest. Thus, while acknowledging the work the Women's March and Disability March have done to honor diverse needs and experiences, this webtext also calls for greater attention to the often invisible and unconscious choices and structures that can hinder true inclusion.

A detailed analysis of the Disability March website reveals multiple, sometimes competing messages about disability that are conveyed through imagery, language choices, and the structure of the site itself. Taken as a whole, the profiles on the site point to the need for greater inclusion of disabled experiences in public discourse. Whether participants in the march chose to downplay or highlight their own disabilities, all alike suggested that disabled and able-bodied people should be able to equally participate in political discussion. This overarching theme contrasts with the more invisible, yet equally important, messages conveyed by the structure of the website itself, which presents challenges for those who may use screen readers or other assistive devices to navigate online. By teasing out these various messages about disability, this webtext shows how invisible structural barriers can limit participation in conversations that, on the surface, signal inclusion.

Before proceeding, I as the author of this webtext would like to acknowledge my personal interest in the Disability March. I was born blind and, with medical interventions, I came to have what I describe as “low vision”—a level of visual acuity that is slightly better than legal blindness. Because of my own experiences, I know how it is to navigate environments that were not built for people like me. I also personally relate to the challenges of representing one’s disability to able-bodied audiences. With that said, I acknowledge that I have only one experience of disability and that future researchers might derive more insight about the Disability March by inviting disabled activists to speak to their intentions when they put forward particular images and text. Ultimately, it is my hope that this study will inspire future research that centers an array of lived experiences of disability.