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Omanis with disabilities and social media

18 May 2024 Omanis with disabilities and social media

By Najma Al Zidjaly

The primary objective of people with disabilities is to attain inclusion. Therefore, my extensive research spanning decades on understanding the relationship between Omanis and social media has consistently emphasised the pivotal role that social media plays in the lives of Omanis with disabilities, who are integral members of the broader Omani society.

However, academic discussions on inclusion predominantly center around the various ways in which the public and society at large incorporate individuals with disabilities into community activities. Given my commitment to highlighting the agency of individuals with disabilities, I chose to approach the connection between social media and Omanis with disabilities through a different lens.

Specifically, I aim to showcase how Omanis with disabilities foster inclusion for themselves, raise awareness about their capabilities, and actively participate in the broader community, particularly through platforms like X, formerly Twitter. In essence, my research underscores how Omanis with disabilities participate in civic engagement, akin to other members of the Omani public.

This study, which is part of my Sultan Qaboos University funded project focusing on the role of social media in promoting civic engagement in Oman, is significant in light of Twitter’s evolution under the leadership of Elon Musk into a platform that offers diverse and lucrative opportunities for all individuals, including those with disabilities. Crucially, my research aims to demonstrate the various ways in which we can learn from individuals with disabilities about leveraging social media to advance our own careers and personal development.

But first a word on academic research on the topic: Existing research on social media and disability presents four divergent perspectives. The first asserts that social media provides benefits for people with disabilities. The second argues that social media poses challenges for this demographic. The third suggests that the technology itself may be exclusionary, as evidenced by the historical difficulty faced by individuals with visual impairments in accessing visual content on platforms like X and Instagram. The final perspective rightly contends that social media reflects the same biases and exclusionary practices present in offline settings.

For example, if women in a particular society, such as Arab women, are less inclined to participate in civic engagement, they are also less likely to engage on platforms like X. However, this argument falls short among Omanis with disabilities, as the two most prominent and active social media influencers with disabilities in Oman are a male and a female: Akram al Mawali and Sheikha al Jassasi. This serves as a testament to the unique experiences of Omanis with disabilities. Additionally, research indicates that if a society as a whole is not inclusive, the same exclusionary tendencies will be mirrored online towards individuals with disabilities.

Further research has shown that many individuals with disabilities utilise social media for various purposes, including connecting with others who share similar disabilities, updating friends and family about their health status, advocating for themselves and others with disabilities, sharing personal experiences and establishing businesses on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. They further use social media to protest against policies that affect their quality of life and voice their desired societal changes to achieve full inclusion. 

Most importantly, research indicates that social media also serves as a tool to dismantle barriers, allowing individuals with varying degrees of limitations to assert their presence both online and in society, challenge stereotypes surrounding disability, and create and seize opportunities for themselves and others.

In summary, the evolution of communication tools, particularly social media, has played a crucial role in bridging the gap between individuals with disabilities and those without. Social media has been a lifeline for many, as the internet circumvents barriers such as inaccessible transportation. This was particularly evident during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many activities transitioned online, providing individuals with disabilities ample opportunities for engagement without the logistical challenges of daily life.

However, research has also highlighted the potential negative impact of social media on the mental health of people with disabilities, as posts often contain negativity or create unrealistic expectations. Moreover, there is a prevailing expectation for individuals with disabilities to present a flawless image online, as they are often seen as representatives of the entire disability community, leaving no room for error or vulnerability and adding to the existing burdens associated with disability.

The findings of my research on the relationship between Omanis with disabilities and social media suggest that these individuals use social media for similar purposes as their global counterparts, albeit with additional nuances influenced by the Omani culture and their esoteric disability experience.

For instance, Omanis with disabilities use X to connect with others – both with and without disabilities, and to showcase their personal interests and hobbies. Sheikha al Jassasi, one of two most prominent Omani social media influencers with a disability, exemplifies this approach through her engaging posts about her life and travels, which demonstrate that her identity transcends her disability. Consequently, she has garnered widespread recognition, including opportunities to speak at Ted Arabia events.

Omanis with disabilities also use X to integrate themselves into the broader Omani community, such as by sharing Eid photos on the popular Omani hashtag #Omani_Snapshot_in_Eid. Additionally, they utilise the platform to disseminate information about events, raise awareness about disability, share personal news and general knowledge, empower themselves and others by sharing international experiences, and advocate for their rights and the necessary changes by directly engaging with relevant authorities.

In my personal journey of researching the actions of Omanis with disabilities on X, I have not only gained insightful knowledge about disability but also learned valuable lessons on becoming a social influencer. Omanis with disabilities have mastered the art of social media, proving through their actions that disability is but a social nuance rather than a medical hindrance.

Najma Al Zidjaly

(Najma is concerned about topics on self, national and cultural development. She is a researcher and associate professor of social media and Arab Omani identity in the Department of English Language and Literature, College of Arts & Social Sciences, at Sultan Qaboos University)

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