TikTok: The good, the bad and the ugly

Friend or foe to people with a disability? We peek under the covers of viral social media platform, TikTok.

Since its world-wide debut, TikTok has had its fair share of controversy. Former US President Donald Trump famously called for the app to be banned and in early 2020 it was revealed that TikTok moderators were filtering out content from users who were ‘too ugly, poor, or disabled’ (a representative claims this was an attempt at preventing bullying).

But negative press has done little to stop the short video app racking up hundreds of millions of fans. In Australia alone, there are over 1.6 million users on the platform.

So, what actually is TikTok? Simply, it’s a social media platform where you can create and share short videos – with music, lip-syncing, dancing, and comedy clips being the most popular (surely you’ve attempted the Renegade at some point!). While much of the content is just a bit of fun, there can be a darker side, where discrimination and bullying of people (including of those with a disability) are all too common.

So, we’re taking a look at the good, bad, and ugly of disability representation on social platforms like TikTok.

The good

Representation is so, so important. Just ask the disability activists jumping on social platforms to raise awareness. A topic for clips that’s becoming increasingly powerful is ‘day in the life’, where people with a disability simply chat through their daily activities. “These are very important,” says Professor Katie Ellis, Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University. “It’s about getting disability representation into spaces where it wasn’t necessarily before.”

One such TikTok star championing disability pride with a twist of Irish humour is Ruth Codd, 24-year-old make-up artist and barber from Ireland. At the age of 15 Ruth suffered a broken leg that refused to heal. After eight operations and years of constant pain, she decided to have it amputated, a decision she tells Independent.ie “gave me back my life.”

Now, Ruth (aka the CEO of having one leg) creates entertaining videos for TikTok that challenge the ableism she experiences in her own life. In one video captioned ‘The AMOUNT of times I’ve had this conversation…’ she pretends to have a conversation with someone refusing to believe that amputation improved her life. “Well, I think you have a great attitude, because if I lost a leg, I’d probably just kill myself!” she exclaims (watch below).

Ruth says, “Hopefully, if anything, my content makes people less scared to approach the subject of disability, and raises a bit of awareness about how to approach the subject.”

@ruthcoddThe AMOUNT of times I’ve had this conversation with people #amputeeawareness #fyp #foryoupage #disabilityawaerness♬ original sound – ruth codd

Embedded content description: A TikTok video where Ruth simulates a conversation with a person who refuses to believe having her leg amputated improved her quality of life.

The bad

Social media algorithms exist for good reason: to give us more of the content we love so we keep coming back for more. If you can’t get enough of funny cat videos, say, you’ll keep getting served up similar content (win!). But TikTok works slightly differently.

According to Associate Professor Crystal Abidin, Principal Research Fellow at Curtin University, TikTok puts topics into broad ‘silos’, delivering users content “that can become more and more extreme in particular categories”.

She adds, “In the disability silo you will see advocates for disability awareness and activists, but you’ll also see people who are just plain ableist, racist, and sexist. It’s all in the same ‘genre’.”

For example, if TikTok recognises that you’re interacting with a lot of content in the disability category, it won’t hesitate to give you the positive (e.g. a person with a disability doing a ‘Day in the Life’), and the Inspiration porn (e.g. a high-school ‘hero’ taking a girl with an intellectual disability to his senior prom).

“Users get just one flattened version of this TikTok genre – the ‘Disability TikTok’,” says Associate Professor Abidin.

The ugly

Viral challenges on social media are nothing new (remember the Ice Bucket challenge from 2014?). While some are useful for raising awareness, others encourage outright discrimination. And in 2020, such a challenge took place on TikTok.

In ‘The New Teacher Challenge’ parents showed their children photos of people with a disability, saying they were their child’s new teacher. The kid’s reaction (typically shocked and frightened) was filmed while the parent laughed in the background.

One of the faces used in the challenge was that of motivational speaker and author Lizzie Vasquez. In an Instagram post Lizzie writes, “The people you put in photos or videos are human beings!! We have feelings and we have something we work on everyday called self-confidence. Please, PLEASE don’t teach your children that it’s funny to be afraid of someone who doesn’t look like them.” (see below).


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A post shared by Lizzie Velasquez (@littlelizziev)


Embedded content description: A Instagram post of the ‘Viral Teacher Challenge’ where Lizzie Vasquez pleads with parents to think of the feelings of the people in these pictures.

Thankfully, many TikTok users are challenging this hateful behaviour, which results in genuine conversations about disability and prejudices. Dr Abidin says that something else that makes her “very happy” is the increasingly savvy comebacks by TikTok users being bullied. “They are being baited to respond aggressively, but they are really wrestling back the narrative and control by not giving that thing an extension,” she says.

The bottom line

Dr Abidin and Professor Ellis stress that while these trends on social media are certainly distressing, they’re nothing new and certainly not limited to TikTok. While it’s the platform’s duty to ban damaging content (TikTok’s harassment and bullying policy states they’ll remove content that belittles individuals “on the basis of attributes such as intellect, appearance, personality traits, or hygiene”), discrimination against people with a disability must also be tackled from the ground up.

“For a long time, people with disabilities have been ridiculed in these ways and laughed at,” says says Professor Ellis. “But now it’s being put on social media platforms for us all to see.”

She continues: “It’s up to traditional media to stop representing people with disabilities being a ‘drain on all our resources’, and it’s up to workplaces to be accessible and flexible so that people with disabilities can be included.”

Associate Professor Abidin and Professor Ellis are currently researching TikTok in relation to human rights and people with a disability, follow their progress on Facebook.