Friday, March 2, 2012

The Problem of Presence

Devotees, like everyone, have an obligation not to bring harm or needless suffering upon others. There are a lot of ways the argument can evolve from this premise, but I feel that an imperative starting point, especially given the state of relations between devotees and the disabled in the information age, is to examine how we violate this obligation as it regards the disabled. In the past I've talked about both the explicit ways in which devotees impair and harm the disabled. Though there is still more to consider.

Now the basic premise I've set up in the past is one which says that you do not take what is not freely given. Unless you have consent, it is not right to copy and trade someone's pictures, videos, etc. This does even extend into the issue of piracy, and the byzantine network of groups at Yahoo are no stranger to leaked photosets, however I would argue that it is OK to set speculation on piracy aside for the time being. There are much more pertinent issues to consider.

Prior to the internet we did not see the same kind of widespread networks for fetishists, whereby a man in Sweden could form a directory that would connect thousands of people from the U.K. and Germany to the U.S. and Australia in an instant. Devoteeism as we know it today is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. Indeed while it still relies on old methods, it has expanded with the internet, for better, or worse, into Facebook, and MySpace, Flickr and most obviously YouTube.

These are fantastic tools for sharing and allow devotees, and really every other fetish group to do the same. Fetishists have become so ubiquitous that they have created their own social networks
. For those of you who remember how the dev webrings and IRC chats ran in the 90's, it seems like things have definitely come a long way since then. The problem is that everyone else has come along too, including the disabled.

I like to believe that devotees and the disabled can peacefully coexist without hurting each other, though realistically I know this won't be possible without a bit of work.

The fact is that where YouTube and every other Web 2.0 success story have done wonders for devs, they have done wonders for everyone. Now we're all existing in much closer proximity. Devs and the disabled are no longer cordoned off into our own separate islands of webspace, but for once we're all sharing certain areas, like YouTube. The problem, as always, is that some devs don't know, or don't care, when they might be hurting or interfering with the disabled.

There are a lot of obvious ways this occurs. There are plenty of devs who will contact disabled women on YouTube pretending to be disabled and hoping to make contact. It's a long heart breaking story, which anyone familiar enough with the issue has no doubt heard or participated in more times than they'd care to admit. While this is one of the more explosive consequences of the presence of coercive devs, and perhaps even a byproduct of devs in general, it is not where the negative effects end.

The Psychology of Disability, Carolyn Vash recounts how, while initially acquiring a disability may be a traumatizing experience leading many down a long path of depression, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. People who acquire disabilities do learn to adapt and overcome their setbacks and blossom into a happy and fulfilling life. One of the key difficulties she identifies in this process is that of convincing the newly disabled to accept that this is a possibility, though she points out one of the best tools in helping them adapt and overcome is being in contact with others who have endured similar setbacks and emerged fulfilled, sometimes even more than before.

It does not take any magnificent stroke of the imagination to realize how YouTube, Facebook, or Flickr could play a significant role in helping people who have acquired disabilities adapt and overcome by allowing them to connect with others and work toward healing and self acceptance. Yet we can also understand just how much damage devotees can cause in this delicate process by poisoning the well. Perhaps at this time, more than any other, our presence alone is most damaging.

There have been plenty of cases of people in rehab for spinal cord injuries and amputations who have uploaded a video of themselves on an FES bike, or parallel bars, or just recuperating in the hospital who have found themselves the unwitting objects of the devoted gaze. Devotees already earn a bad name for impairing the lives of the disabled online, but as some have pointed out, as our society becomes increasingly integrated with the internet, and embraces public sharing, what we mean by “life online” grows less and less distinguishable from “life offline”. When I was growing up we used to measure our amount of time spent “on the computer”, though with the advent of smart phones it is easier to speak of our time “away from a computer”.

Our presence and its effect has the potential to expand greatly in the next few decades depending on the supply of rare earth metals amongst other things. Whatever the case, we have an obligation to ensure that we do not negatively impact the lives of the disabled through our actions, which at some points may extend to include our presence alone.

When you see videos posted from rehab, do not favorite them, do not 'like' them, do not save them, do not share them, do not post comments to them. Keep them out of the dev network entirely. These are people who are in the midst of an oftentimes painful and jarring transition, one of the more vulnerable periods in someone's life, and it is to be left alone that they and others enduring such a trial may learn and prosper from this. Your presence serves only to pollute the process and bring harm to those you would love.


There is a very common argument that devotees use when they are berated by the disabled for having their feelings at all. It has been stated many ways in many different languages but generally runs as follows, “The disabled dislike devotees because they cannot accept their disability.” The belief here is that if, and only if, the disabled could come to understand that their bodies are ultimately no different in value from those of the able bodied, that there is no shame to be had in crutches or a leg bag, that they possess equal capacity for love, discovery, style, grace, power, and yes even sexiness, that they would come to realize that there is nothing wrong with someone appreciating what they have to offer.

Some disabled people have come around to the idea, though I find it ultimately too reductive and simplistic to apply to everyone. After all, there are many other terrible reasons why a disabled person may dislike devotees which has nothing to do with how they view their bodies. However, if you accept the common dev argument, then does it not follow that you ought not interfere with the very delicate process of adjustment to one's new body which can lead to such negative opinions of devs?

Harassing the disabled in rehab only works against your own interests.

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