Disability

Where Are The Disabled Facebook Avatars?

Silicon Valley keeps on ignoring disabled bodies, and we're sick of it.

As a teenager, I was an easy target for bullies. I was tall, with gangly limbs that because of my dyspraxia and arthritis didn’t do what my brain told them to. I fell over a lot and was terrible at any sports. Kids would do cruel impressions of me, and I was called names such as “Spazz” and “Skeletor” as I was tripped and pushed into things. 

Social media didn’t exist the same way then it does now, but I can’t tell you how much it would have meant to me then to be able to connect to other people with disabilities… let alone to feel seen and represented online. 

So when Facebook announced their new Avatars feature a couple of weeks ago—customizable little characters that we can make look like us–I was excited. Not just for myself, but for all of the disabled teens like me who could now feel included.

But if you’re disabled, you soon find that Facebook’s new Avatars don’t represent you. Instead of celebrating the human form in all its shapes and varieties, you can only create your Facebook Avatar with a narrow array of body types. None of which are disabled bodies.

You can only create your Facebook Avatar with a narrow array of body types. None of which are disabled bodies.

To be fair to Facebook, they are not the first Silicon Valley company to ignore disabled bodies. Bitmoji, a digital avatar product owned by Snapchat, allows users to represent themselves in a series of emoji-like cartoons, doing everything from playing the electric guitar to riding a lobster–yet you can’t create your BitMoji with a cane or walker. Nintendo’s Animal Crossing allows players to give themselves a range of looks and accessories, but you can’t wheel yourself around in a wheelchair. And on Microsoft’s Xbox Live service, players can create an avatar with a cyborg robot limb… but not without a limb at all. 

All of these are multi-billion dollar tech companies. All offer virtual avatar products with a seemingly infinite array of user-customizable avatar options. Yet where are the disabled bodies? It’s hard to make the argument that not designing your avatar product with disabilities in mind is a matter of constraint when you have no problem finding the design resources to give users a man-sized lobster to ride. Instead, it comes across as what it is: ableist and invalidating of the disabled experience. 

It’s hard to make the argument that not designing your avatar product with disabilities in mind is a matter of constraint when you have no problem finding the design resources to give users a man-sized lobster to ride.

When I tried and failed to make my new Facebook Avatar to look like me, I was miffed, but it didn’t affect me too much. As a grown woman, I have already accepted the fact that my body and experience is valid, even when others don’t see it that way. But what about all those disabled teens out there, looking for acceptance and inclusion on the world’s biggest social platforms… only to not be seen? 

I’m not the only critic concerned about how these ableist design choices from big tech companies could harm young disabled teens.

“I got caught up in the silly buzz over Avatars, making a rather youthful version of myself, but was a little let down to discover I couldn’t give my mini-me the essential wheelchair,” says Mik Scarlet, a broadcaster and journalist who has been a partial paraplegic since childhood. “It’s little, I know, and at 54, it doesn’t bother me, but I think it would’ve at 14. Imagine being a disabled kid growing up seeing that? We can pick every shade of skin color, which is an amazing step forward for inclusion, and stuff like hats & glasses… so why not a section for things like wheelchairs and crutches?”

My friend and fellow journalist Hollie-Anne Brooks, who has Myalgic encephalomyelitis, is also concerned about the ableist message the design choices of Facebook Avatars and other similar products put forward. “I made mine, but I felt sad that she was jumping and dancing like that’s the only acceptable way to be happy.”

“Imagine being a disabled kid growing up seeing that? We can pick every shade of skin color, which is an amazing step forward for inclusion… so why not a section for things like wheelchairs and crutches?”

The thing is, it wouldn’t be hard for Facebook and other companies to include us. “This shows a total lack of imagination,” says Tom Shakespeare, Professor of Disability Research at London School of Hygiene and Topical Medicine; he also has achondroplasia and uses a wheelchair. The whole point of an avatar is to be seen as you are.  Human beings come in all shapes and sizes and abilities.  About 1 in 7 people, one billion in the world, have disabilities.  For many disabled people, their impairment is part of them. Whether it’s restricted growth, a wheelchair, a white cane or a guide-dog, we want to be seen as we are.”

Disabled people don’t want the moon. We understand that most companies are going to be more focused on adding ‘fun’ accessories and features to their avatar and emoji products, than fleshing out every possible permutation of the human body. But all we want is to be seen and included. Silicon Valley has taken great strides in the last few years in including a greater variety of skin tones, hair types, and body shapes in their products, so people ca better express their identity. Well, disability is part of my identity, as well as millions of other user’s. It’s time we were included too.