How Disabled Creators Spread Awareness on TikTok
Brand Insights in 3 Sentences: Disabled creators make popular and resonant content that pushes back against ableism, informs about the reality of living with a disability, and advocates for change in noninclusive spaces and businesses. There is an enormous diversity in approach between style, subject, and tone in these videos, reflecting the diversity in the disabled community and indicating a need for many forms of activism and awareness. Brands can make their social media presence accessible to hearing and vision impaired people with closed captions and audio descriptions — alongside a focus on accessibility in physical spaces — to demonstrate their commitment to disability allyship.
In some ways, the internet is a great equalizer. It allows people of different ages, creeds, and cultural backgrounds to participate. Many oppressed and underrepresented groups have had their voices heard in ways never before possible because of social media. For people that can’t have access to in-person spaces readily and safely, social media has become an essential piece of infrastructure.
That said, the internet is still not accessible to all. For example, social media continues to exclude hearing and vision impaired people. While strides have been made through screen-readers and closed captioning, there are still a number of barriers to access on platforms that are highly visual and auditory.
For a long time, TikTok was one of the worst offenders. The short-form video platform didn’t require or even suggest that its users include captions. As Tiktok’s popularity soared, this left thousands of deaf and hearing-impaired people unable to access some of the most current and relevant media of 2020 and 2021.
However, in a unique turn of events, many users took matters into their own hands.
Younger generations, especially Gen-Z, began manually captioning their videos. This trend became so common that it still persists today, even after TikTok finally added auto-captioning and text-to-speech functionalities to its platform.
This organized effort to make TikTok more accessible is evidence of a larger trend among internet users. In short, people want to learn more about disability, accessibility, and allyship:
This increase in disability awareness is owed in large part to the disabled activists that have taken to social media to educate and inform the public. While social media continues to struggle with its accessibility issues, it has also become an important platform for disability awareness and activism.
That’s why we at Quilt decided to use Sphere, our AI platform, to highlight some of TikTok’s disabled creators and activists, while examining the messages they promote through their content.
Here’s what we found:
Keeping it Real
TikTok is a very personal platform. Its videos are often face-to-face, confessional, and vulnerable. There are several enormously popular trends that capitalize on sharing everyday experiences, like “Get Ready With Me” (#grwm) and “a Day in my Life”.
This focus on truthful and personal content extends to disability activists. Many of the videos we examined were insights into the daily lives of the users who posted them. We used Sphere’s Everyday Experience analysis to identify what themes were most prevalent in these videos:
Simply put, many of the creators we examined keep it real with their audiences. Their content shows where they are, what they deal with on a daily basis, and all without embellishment or sugarcoating. It’s a very effective style of awareness-building and education that neither sensationalizes nor romanticizes disabled experiences.
Claire Sisk (canseecantsee), a blind woman from the United Kingdom, devotes nearly half of her content to this theme. Sometimes, this comes in the form of little insights into her life — generally, explanations of how she goes about certain daily activities with her disability.
Other times, she gets real about some of the more difficult elements of living with disability. Even then, she tends to maintain a lighthearted spin on her experience:
Claire is one of many disabled creators who “keep it real” with their content. However, it’s not a concept limited to positivity. Many creators are unafraid to share a more impassioned message about the reality of their daily lives.
Advocating for Change
TikTok’s disabled community is an incredibly accepting, welcoming space. So it is surprising that Sphere’s sentiment analytics found a significant negative element in the posts of some creators:
However, these negative sentiments have nothing to do with disability, and everything to do with accessibility and discrimination. They are justified criticisms for a world that needs to make living for disabled people safer, more reliable, and more welcoming. Many of the creators we examined use their platform to decry the more egregious failings that society has performed against disabled individuals.
Naturally, creators choose to devote differing amounts of their content to this kind of activism and education. Some users choose to simply focus on the positive and informative elements of their experience. Others are unafraid to delve into the unfair perception they receive from society and the ways the world around them has been made inaccessible.
These are the sentiment breakdowns of three different profiles, reflecting the wide range of perspectives disabled creators bring to TikTok:
Sarah Todd Hammer — a disability advocate, published author, dancer, model, and speaker — is one TikTok user whose page reflects different kinds of disability activism and awareness. She calls out ableism and prejudice:
She also educates and informs about her experience with accessibility during daily life:
And, she doesn’t hesitate to celebrate the accomplishments of her college’s disability club:
Sarah’s TikTok account showcases the many types of content that disabled creators use to advocate and spread awareness. Sometimes, it’s important to illuminate the negative experiences of disabled people and push for change. Other times, education and celebration are just as valid.
Bringing Unique Perspectives
The disabled community is not monolithic. Disability encompasses an enormous scope of experiences, and no two are exactly the same. While there is common cause for disability advocates and activists, there are also so many unique points-of-view which celebrate and further causes like accessibility and anti-ableism.
That’s why it’s so commendable that disabled creators on TikTok promote so many different perspectives. We’ve already discussed those who challenge ableism and call-out inaccessibility. We’ve also discussed creators that get honest about how they go about daily tasks with their disability.
But there are all-kinds of disabled TikTok users doing all kinds of things. Our Sphere data shows that the emotional breakdown of the TikToks we examined is incredibly varied:
The same is true of the categories that creators focus on:
The incredible variety of tone and subject reflected in our data shows just how diverse disability advocacy on TikTok can be. This diversity even extends to the style of videos being made.
Spencer West (Spencer2thewest) is a disabled content creator and speaker who shares his daily experiences to his 4.3 million followers. His TikToks often take his followers alongside him on some sort of daily journey in a #dayinmylife style. Notably, these are highly edited, voiced-over projects that share personal stories in a compelling format:
Another creator making unique content is Jeff Mitsuo (paintwithjeff), who shares his paintings with more than 1.3 million followers. The TikTok page features simple videos of Jeff’s creative process, which are usually backed by little more than quiet music. However, Jeff’s talent for painting has led to multiple TikToks with more than 10 million views:
Jeff, alongside his friend and helper Jake Stevens, has turned this viral success into a benefit for his local disabled community. Together, they’ve sold thousands of Jeff’s paintings and used the proceeds to establish a bursary at a local high school for special needs students, in addition to donating to the Federation for Cerebral Palsy.
It’s a reminder that disability advocacy and activism can take many forms — even one as simple and joyful as sharing your art with the world.
What You Can Do
The efforts of disabled creators and advocates on TikTok have made accessibility a more public and accepted cause. But many disabled TikTok users are pointing out that accessibility benefits everyone, including the businesses that practice it:
By making products and services available to people with disabilities, businesses make themselves more welcoming and break down the barriers that divide us — much like the Disability Flag intends:
There are many ways to promote accessibility. Adding ramps, wide doors and landings, and accessible parking to physical spaces is an important step, but social media has become an equally important area to improve access for people with all kinds of disabilities.
- Add Closed Captions Where Possible
- Include Alternative Text to Describe Images
- Capitalize Your Hashtags
- Don’t Overuse Emojis
- Stay Away From Custom Fonts
- Maintain Color Contrast
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