The Internet has been hailed as one of the most revolutionary advances in terms of how we communicate with each other. And for some of us with disabilities, it has brought great and positive changes to our lives. The Internet can reduce the experience of social isolation and exclusion, and provide an important means of connection when, all too often, inaccessible buildings, inadequate transport, and negative social reactions hamper our full and equal participation in society.
The Internet can also be beneficial in the way it can ‘liberate’ us from our impairments and allow us to enter a virtual world where our disability is invisible and we are not subject to the social stigma of disability. From personal experience, however, I know that living this double life can be damaging. The Internet has a darker side.
I spent my late teens as an able-bod wanna-be by night and shy, depressed 17 year old in a wheelchair by day. I was intensely lonely and desperate to be seen as a sexual being. I wanted to be desired by someone – anyone – and was painfully aware that my disability made me unfit girlfriend material in the eyes of many. So I went online, where I could hide my disability, and in chat rooms late at night I found a lot of men who wanted me. At the time, I relished the freedom to step into an online world where I was ‘normal’. But in the end, for me, it did more harm than good.
I was young and pretty, and with the webcam aimed deliberately on my upper body, I could pretend my wheelchair didn’t exist. I was wanted by men mostly for my ability to write erotica on demand. In chat rooms I was the young woman I wanted to be: smart, funny, and importantly, hot.
I would wake up late, trying to sleep as long as I could so as not to confront my real life. In the morning I’d see my wheelchair waiting for me. I would climb into it and look down at my legs in a short skirt, which was exactly the same cut as my best friend’s at the time, and try desperately not to notice my wheels. I would wait for night to come, when my online popularity in chat rooms would make me feel accepted socially and wanted sexually, and give me momentary reprieve from my wheelchair hell.
It would take me a long time to realise that the men in those chat rooms would have wanted any woman, and longer to realise that I didn’t really want them; I was actually attracted to women. Looking back now, I can see the second life I’d created was never going to be helpful in the long term. The ‘freedom’ to reinvent myself came at a cost of social anxiety, self-loathing, and disassociation from my actual bodily experience. The constant late nights zapped what little energy I had to build a life for myself in the real world and I eventually spiralled into depression as I realised I could not escape my body, and had no way to relate to my disability positively.
The Internet had taken me to a dark place, but it also helped me out of it. I luckily stumbled across the social model of disability online, and discovered that my body was not the problem. Rather, society needed to change and become more inclusive. This perspective changed my life. It provided me with a new, positive framework from which I could relate to my disability. The Internet also enabled me to connect with a global community of empowered disability activists fighting for social change.
I have come a long way since then. Yet at almost age 30, I found myself reflecting on this painful time in my youth after a recent, unpleasant online experience that reminded me of the unforeseen consequences of having an online presence.
I have been engaging in online dating this past year, and apart from a few interesting characters, I have had a lot of success by being up front about my disability in a way that works for me. I thought I knew how to market my crip identity online, and the women who have responded have been respectful of my difference.
As an adult, I have always found crip pride and power in declaring myself as a sexual being. I have devoted much of my life railing against the common assumption that I am asexual because I have a disability. I run workshops on disability and sexuality and am also a spoken-word performer.
Read the complete article at ABC/Ramp Up.
Jax Jacki Brown is a disability activist, writer, performer and troublemaker. She runs disability and sexuality workshops and MCs deaf and disability performance nights in Melbourne.
Photo credit: PDP