Can Virtual Participation Lead to Discrimination?

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By Mike Ervin

There was a time when I was adamantly opposed to indulging in any form of “virtual” participation, such as attending a meeting via Zoom.

Virtual participation seemed like an oxymoron to me. At best, I considered it to be a pale substitute for the real thing. My online dictionary says that virtual means “almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition.”

I think this deep aversion to all things virtual was at least partially due to my disability. I thought that the disabled activists whom I revered for paving the way for people like me fought hard for my right to fully participate in the world around me. I took that too literally. I felt that doing anything less than showing up in person to take part in everything was to betray them. I always showed up at my polling place and voted in person, rather than voting absentee, for the same reason. I thought it was my obligation to do so.

But then the pandemic hit and everything shut down. Ironically, this also meant that everything opened up more for disabled people, in a way, because practically all participation became virtual. When everything was shut down, about the only way to have any contact with anyone outside of your immediate household was via Zoom and such.

So I gave in. I realized that if I didn’t participate in things virtually I might not participate at all. I might get left in the dust. I’d be even more isolated.

Now that life has reopened a bit, my perspective on virtual participation has changed. I’ve been experiencing a weird phenomenon of late where I meet someone in person for the first time but I’ve seen them many times before on my computer and/or my telephone screen so I feel like I already know them well. And I‘ve come to realize that I probably never would have met any of these great people or had any of the great experiences I had with them had I stuck to being such a purist.

I still do Zoom with some frequency for the sake of convenience and when I do, I don’t feel as if I‘m betraying my disabled ancestors anymore. My perspective now is that they fought so hard for my right to have choices and the power to exercise them, so that I could participate in the world around me in whatever manner suits me best. I think they would consider that sort of connectivity to be a good thing. So what if my online dictionary says that virtual means “almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition.” Maybe just by doing our thing in our own way, people with disabilities can redefine what it means to participate. Trying to keep moving forward during the shutdown showed me that it’s the end that matters, not the means of getting there. Disabled people often just do things differently.

Why should I go through all of the hassle of flying to Los Angeles for a business meeting when I can take part just as effectively from home via video conference?

On a cold day, I’m glad that I can work from home and not have to bundle up and commute to and from some office where I’d do the same damn tasks anyway. Just because a person finds it difficult or impossible to go to an office every day doesn’t mean that they can’t or don’t deserve the opportunity to make a valuable contribution. And I now reserve the right to vote absentee every now and then if that’s what I feel like doing. I voted by mail in the 2020 presidential election. I didn’t want to go to my polling place when so many public places were still shut down. But I didn’t want to not vote at all.

I don’t mind talking to my doctor online either. I don’t feel any obligation to show up at my doctor’s office in person if I don’t have to. Wouldn’t it be great if we all could do stuff like give ourselves x-rays and draw our own blood from the comfort of our own homes?

But all of this pertains to taking care of business. I still prefer making face-to-face contact with other humans whenever I can when it comes to trying to have fun. And I still think there is a certain emptiness to some forms of virtual participation. Seeing a video of the Eiffel Tower is not the same as seeing the Eiffel Tower in person. To me, there’s something sad about seeing a guy standing in his living room wearing virtual reality goggles and fighting off imaginary invading aliens from outer space with an imaginary lightsaber. I want to sit that person down, take off their goggles and gently remind them that there are no invading aliens from outer space in their living room and they do not have a lightsaber. I know it’s kind of silly for me to feel the need to hold an intervention like that. What that person does doesn’t hurt me any. To each their own, I guess.

I also fear that too much virtual participation may lead to some serious social regression for disabled folks. We all know that there are plenty of people out there, politicians and otherwise, who would just as soon see laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act get kicked to the curb. Maybe this will give them the excuse that’s needed for that to happen. Maybe they’ll say that since we have virtual access, we don’t need the real thing.

Maybe virtual participation will lead to a slippery slope. Or maybe I’m overthinking this whole thing.

Mike Ervin is a writer and disability-rights activist living in Chicago. He is a columnist for the Progressive magazine and writes the blog Smart Ass Cripple.


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