Social media platforms must protect those of us with learning disabilities

Last week, I wrote about how children with learning disabilities can achieve anything, if only the government would support them.

After my article was published, I found myself a target of online abuse just for speaking out as a person who has a learning disability.

I had been on a real high after a brilliant week campaigning alongside the families who took the government to court over its inadequate funding of special educational needs support.

I had never imagined that I’d protesting on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice, let alone doing live TV interviews. To have the opportunity to use my own experience of special educational needs support to help others who desperately need it felt so rewarding. I was proud to be part of a campaign to bring about change for parents and their children who have a learning disability like me.

Then that pride turned to anger and upset when I saw a comment on Twitter underneath a link to the article I’d written for Metro. I won’t repeat what it said, but it was nasty and bigoted and it made me feel utterly miserable. There had been more comments but they had already been removed after being reported by other users. I dread to think what they said.

I have worked so hard to get to where I am today and to read those words was so hard. It brought back the awful memories of the name calling, mocking, and laughter that I experienced when I was at school. 

I was bullied for having a learning disability. I was called names by my classmates and my teachers never stopped them or challenged their attitudes.

My online abuser was using the same tactics – picking on me for being different. Like many abusers he just saw my disability, not me as a person, and said those words to hurt me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know that social media can be used for good, that it can help give those who are silenced a voice and connect people who might otherwise be all on their own.

I’ve seen the power it has to challenge attitudes and bring about change through my job as a campaigns support officer at the learning disability charity Mencap.

But it is also being used as a platform for bullying, harassment and hate. And this has to stop.

The easy thing would have been for me just to come off Twitter but I do not want to let the bullies win by allowing myself to be silenced. I have a right to be on social media just like anyone else.

I know that I am also one of the lucky ones. I have the full support of Mencap and my circle of friends who helped me to report it to Twitter and even publicly called on Twitter to take action.

Social media companies have a big role to play in safeguarding all of their users, but especially children and vulnerable adults. I know that if Twitter had put the right support in place from the beginning, it would have improved everyone’s experience of social media.

There are a number of things the platform could do to achieve this: creating safety tips and a reporting guide in an easy read format, or better still, a “how to” video with clear subtitles. It can be hard for people – especially those with learning disabilities – to understand what the rules are and feel confident in how to report abusive messages.

It would also make a difference if they were to change the reporting system to include a text field so that when people report they can explain the reason why they are reporting (currently it’s a check box system), and put people with specialist training in charge of moderating reported incidents of hate speech to make sure nothing is missed.

Currently Twitter has not made its moderation process clear, which makes it hard to know what exactly they expect from users.

And it’s not just Twitter – YouTube and Instagram have both recently come under fire for failing to properly address reports of abusive comments.

We need to make sure that social media platforms are safe spaces for people who have a learning disability like me and that disability hate speech that can happen there is taken seriously. So I’ve asked Twitter to engage with me to discuss how they can change their policies for the better.

I’m speaking out about what I went through not just for me, but for every person who has a learning disability who I know has experienced bullying, whether online or offline.

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