For all the recent talk of online abuse it’s easy to forget the awesome positive power of social media to include, to connect, to mobilise and democratise, providing platforms and access to those who have historically been locked out of the ‘public square’.
Jan Sutton knew that power well and used it to huge effect. Jan’s MS and the fatigue it caused made participation in the physical world extremely difficult, yet as people have come to hear of her death last month, it’s clear that Jan was nevertheless everywhere. Whether on posters around the country for Act for the Act, on videos for Equally Ours, at conferences, taking part in training sessions, and with me delivering them via Skype, in the blogosphere and of course on Twitter.
Jan’s chief passion was to promote the importance and value of human rights to all of us and to defend the legislation that protects them here in the UK, the Human Rights Act, which she did with every shred of her spare energy. Jan’s contribution also enriched human rights campaigns, clearly and authentically demonstrating why human rights matter so much in the ‘small places close to home’. As Jan said in a blog for Authors of Our Lives in 2014 ‘I choose to out myself as a ‘striver.’ For her striving Jan won the Liberty ‘small places close to home’ award in 2015
Social media has transformed disability rights activism. Despite the language of inclusion, it’s increasingly clear that many had been left on the margins or excluded altogether – their voices and lived experience given little or no attention. Social media has changed that, completely transforming the landscape, by opening up activism through networks such as Disabled People Against the Cuts, Spartacus Network, Justice for LB and Crip the Vote and to individual voices such as Jan’s. I’ve little doubt established disability rights campaigners would have challenged austerity. But the combination of austerity and the emergence of social media has also challenged disability rights activists to think differently about disability rights, in particular by paying more attention to long term health conditions, their effects and the specific barriers experienced.
As the Seven Days of Action campaign recently showed, social media based campaigns, led by those with direct experience and often with little or no financial resources, are achieving what the best resourced charity communications departments often fail to do. This has re-balanced power, away from the well-funded charities, has enriched the debate and resulted in better-informed campaigning.
Writing in 2014, Jan said of disability rights ‘I believe it’s time for us to help society to write a different story.’ In bidding a sad farewell to one of its chief authors, I nevertheless look forward to reading the next chapters online as well as off.