From Variable to Linkable: How Digital Traces Define Identity in the Disability Community in Britain

78 Pages Posted: 29 Oct 2017

See all articles by Ellie Marshall

Ellie Marshall

University of Toronto, Faculty of Law, Students

Date Written: July 1, 2015


Although there is burgeoning literature on web accessibility and digital skills, little critical discussion of the politics of digitization or ‘datafication’ exists in relation to disability as an identity. This is an important area of inquiry; as computing becomes more ubiquitous and the amount of data collected about each individual increases, a disabled person’s anxieties about a technology could be seen as further disabling. This thesis offers a theoretical and empirical contribution to this lacuna by presenting a study designed to emphasize the experiences of disability online.

The way people experience disability is tied to context. This thesis explores the UK government’s rationalization of technology alongside the tradition of ordering disabled people by their ability to work. Fifteen savvy Internet users who disclose their disability online were interviewed in-depth about what it is like to be disabled in Britain, what the Internet means to them, and how they use the Internet. A repertoire of concern around being “not disabled enough” emerged from this specific sample. Four unique tactics appeared in response to this fear, each of which aims to help the subject present as a coherent and cohesive self, or face risks as extreme as hate crimes. The implications of this study for researchers and policy makers alike is a nuanced understanding that, in some cases, when disabled people overcome the ‘digital divide’ they do not inhabit an equalized space. This finding suggests that government strategies for digital inclusion may not be as effective as intended. A residual benefit of this effort is a demonstration of how, methodologically, Internet studies and critical disability studies can work as allies.

Keywords: disability, identity, the Internet, experience, government, discipline, responsibilization, benefits

Suggested Citation

Marshall, Ellie, From Variable to Linkable: How Digital Traces Define Identity in the Disability Community in Britain (July 1, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Ellie Marshall (Contact Author)

University of Toronto, Faculty of Law, Students ( email )


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