“We can’t loiter in digital spaces, but just uncomfortably exist.”
This evocative statement continues to haunt me two days after a bunch of us met this month in Delhi to explore a new concept. We were a mixed bag of different genders and sexualities: disability activists, technologists, researchers, digital entrepreneurs. Some came with canes or wheelchairs, some came with less visible disabilities, some came as allies, and some came out of interest.
It didn’t seem like we had come together to discuss loitering, let alone loitering online. We had gathered to talk about digital self-determination for people with disabilities; a big concept that we broke down by focusing on its core component: the self. How can I be my self in digital spaces – from dating apps to digital payment systems? What gives me more of a sense of self in these spaces? How can design, technology and policy contribute to helping me determine myself in digital spaces?
But if we look below the hood, we were – not just in a sense, but truly, actually – talking about loitering. For what is loitering if not the act of freely occupying and wandering through digital spaces as ourselves, who we are, including spaces of desire, romance, sex and pleasure? Of determining ourselves online? A queer disabled woman talked of uncomfortably navigating dating apps, where there are no markers for disability. The absence of markers is itself a form of exclusion, putting the onus on the individual to make decisions about ‘unmarked’ attributes. (Are you even counted if you’re not marked?) Should you reveal your crutch? Should you bury your identity as a person of marginalised gender and ability? What language, what tone should you use in your profile?
This reminded me of a wonderful short essay I had read on navigating Tinder with an identifiable disability. In that essay, Tony Kurian, who is visually-impaired, raises the same dilemma. “The first obvious question was – should I mention my disability upfront, or should I give the prospective date some time to understand me, and then disclose the disability?” Tony decides to mention that he is blind in his profile, realising in the process that he is asserting his sense of self. “By creating a Tinder profile, and mentioning my disability on it, I was making a statement that I was, in fact, a potential date. I was declaring that I was worth dating.”
Back at our meeting, a participant talked about a friend, a trans woman pre-transition who wouldn’t get any matches when she put photos of herself, as she was, on dating apps. But when she used Artificial Intelligence to make more binary images of herself, she started getting many matches. Again, what does this tell us about being able to determine one’s body or self online? As the conversation unfolded, we started to understand how digital infrastructures – which are often heterosexual, binary, and ableist in their design and features – subtly shape and build social norms, indicating who counts in these spaces or who these spaces have been created for.
“There is so much validation and desirability that a lot of us crave but have not been given,” said a participant. “We’re ashamed of our disabled trans bodies, but dating apps also bury it in a way. It’s bittersweet being in a world where you are expected to move and talk and exist in a non-disabled way. How do we navigate that?”
Another trans disabled participant talked about how anonymity can enable expressions of desire. Their social media handles are not in their real names, but signify that they are trans. “People often fetishise me,” they said. “Often men take an interest but wouldn’t admit it, would hide it. Because this desirability is stigmatised. They use Instagram anonymously to send me messages like ‘hi hottie’. I don’t blame them cause there’s no channel for them to express this desire that brings ‘shame’.”
The question of anonymity in digital spaces is, of course, a complicated one. On the one hand, not using a real name can cloak one’s identity vis-a-vis other humans online. But every action invisibly being recorded as data by the machine, which is being linked to other bits of data, means we are not anonymous to digital infrastructures. We’re visible to the machine.
The politics of visibility and invisibility is also an important component of self-determination. Most app and platform designs may think about visible disabilities when it comes to accessibility, but largely ignore those that are less visible.
Linked to visibility is the big question of digital accessibility – are platforms and apps even accessible to persons with disabilities? How can one determine oneself in a space that one can’t even access? In an online article, gender and disability activist Nidhi Goyal, who co-facilitated this meeting with me, noted that at one point she could work, live and socialise independently, but could not access a dating app with the voice technology she used. She noted that there’s a gender gap when it comes to using dating apps – many women with disabilities said they could not openly express desire and were expected to do so only within the context of marriage.
Accessibility. Platform designs that account for disability. Safety. A sense of belonging. Community. All of these are vital aspects of self-determination in digital spaces. Many disabled persons at our meeting talked of digital communities helping them survive in many different ways. But the aim is not just survival – the idea is to flourish online. To do that, it’s not enough to have accessibility as an after-thought; what’s needed is Accessibility By Design, front and centre.
Meaning, what’s needed is unconditional access to the digital, or infrastructure that recognises people with disabilities as full human beings…as loiterers. In a wonderful essay, authors Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan write about loitering in physical spaces as a political act, where pleasure trumps purpose.  When it comes to gender, loitering disrupts the everyday performances of normative respectable femininity in public space; it encompasses a politics of visibility; it has the capacity to challenge the power dynamics of public spaces by talking about everyone’s ‘right’ to these space; and it makes possible a dream of an inclusive citizenship “by disrupting existent hierarchies and refusing to view the claims of one group against the claims of another.”
This is what we need in digital spaces too, this kind of loitering. What’s needed is a digital space that enables people with disabilities not just to uncomfortably exist online, but to loiter. With canes and chronic illness, with voice assistants and accessibility features, in full pleasure and desire.
 Phadke, S., Ranade, S. & Khan, S. (2009). Why loiter? Radical possibilities for gendered dissent. In M. Butcher & S. Velayutham (Eds.), Dissent and Cultural Resistance in Asia’s Cities (pp. 185-203). London & New York: Routledge.
Cover Image: Photo by Ilya Pavlov on Unsplash