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Not just a pretty Facebook
I have mixed feelings about Facebook. I log on almost every day, to catch up with friends or to play Scrabble. I am delighted to be back in touch with people from school, and to have made new mates worldwide. It's a convenient way of sharing news and participating in debate; at the moment, I am arguing with the great Nabil Shaban about the ethics of assisted suicide. Facebook is a huge network of human beings, however, and human beings, particularly teenage ones, are sadly, remarkably and continually prejudiced about disabled people.
The user generated content of Facebook enables ordinary people to create networks and form groups for discussion between those who are like-minded. Which is great, most of the time, but depressingly obnoxious some of the time.
I've always known, and research my team conducted has proven, that people with restricted growth commonly experience staring, name calling and prejudice. But a quick scan of some of the groups on Facebook shows both how common, and how idiotic, this discrimination can be.
There are more than 500 of these groups which include the word "dwarf" in their title, and a similar number called something like "midget". This includes, but is not limited to, groups like: "I kick midgets", "Dwarfs are for life not just pantomime", "Give blind people dwarfs instead of dogs" and, particularly close to home for me, "Let's ban dwarfs from South Shields beach in summer months".
Now, most of these groups have no more than a dozen members, and probably drunken student ones at that, but the whole thing is distinctly unsavoury. Particularly when you realize that some of these groups exchange photographs of restricted growth people or refer to "sightings", none of them with the consent of the individuals concerned.
Photographs are posted for mutual amusement and ridicule, and sometimes the addresses of restricted growth people are added. The organizers and members clearly believe they are hilariously funny, with semi-literate descriptions, such as: "This is a group that concentrates about improving the living standarts for the small people. we demand full pay for the midgets because even if they are only half human and half nothing , they to have feelings even if it is only small feelings. our second demand is that they are to be released into the wild where they belong.. put them back into the great forrests and onto the mountains that are the dwarfs natural habitat.. release them from the mines and the very small sweatshops where they now reside..."
A recent campaign organized by members of the Restricted Growth Association resulted in some of the more extreme sites being removed by Facebook, but others have sprung up in their place. Two police forces have been involved, and it is possible that action will be taken in response to behaviour which probably infringe the 2003 Criminal Justice Act by inciting hatred and harassment of disabled people. The wheels of justice, as usual, move slowly.
Clearly, nastiness like this has always happened, and many disabled people have heard the same or worse in their own lives. But Facebook and similar social networking sites provide a forum which bored idiots can fill with prejudice and filth. Perhaps some people are happy just to look the other way or ignore it, but it feels distressing to know this stuff is out there, and it encourages negative attitudes and quite possibly harassment and physical violence against disabled people.
Parents of children with disabilities have told me how upset this material makes them feel, particularly as many Facebook users are themselves children and young people, who may have fragile self esteem already.
Above all, the existence of these attitudes and these groups makes me suspicious of people who ask to be my friend on Facebook. Most of the strangers who get in touch are no doubt Ouch! readers or people who know my academic work. But perhaps some of the people I approve are just voyeurs, eager to laugh at my picture and point me out to their mates when they return home drunk from the pub. I'd rather run that risk than reject everyone I don't know, but I put strangers on "limited access" settings as a precaution.
Although the world has improved for disabled people in many ways, this dimension of Facebook is a sad reminder that old attitudes die hard.
Groups that can be found on Facebook todayDwarf Haters - 11 members - A group of people that simply just hate dwarfs.
Midget Lovers - 217 members - "I'm on a mission to find ALL midget lovers. Come join me in the quest! Add as many pics or vids as you want - as long as they're funny! Let the midget hunting commence!"
Dwarf Busters - 10 members - A group for like-minded (sane) individuals, to plot the downfall and eventual destruction of vertically challenged old men with [deleted] frogspawn".
Dwarf Power - 10 members - "We think dwarfs are the funniest thing - do you?"
Midget - 262 members - "Join the midget group. Midgets are awesome."
Dwarf Punchers - 6 members - "A group dedicated to winning fights with little people."
Midget Strippers - 401 members - "Midget female stripper required urgently. Anyone know where I can get one from?"
Midget Mayhem - 53 members - This to anyone who as spare midgets for sale or wanting to sell .. Things i have learned from midgets: every midget in the world was a Ewok or starred in Willow ...
Midget Fighting - 56 members - Midget fighting is so funny.
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