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A Discussion of the Health & Wellness Category and the Bias Against Disability

I received an interesting comment following our announcement of the Ninjamatics' 2011 Canadian Weblog Awards nominees shortlist, and I think it deserves to be addressed in its own entry. Here is the comment in question:
I wasn't going to say anything but I wonder if there is a strong anti-disabled sentiment amongst the judges, none of the leading disabled bloggers, who were nominated, made it to the finals. Health and wellness, which is supposed to include those with physical disabilities - didn't. Ecology and social justice completely shut out disabled bloggers. They selected a blogger who hasn't blogged for months and excluded disabled bloggers who seriously try to make change every day. I see bias here. The disabled community is familiar with having our voices silenced. I guess maybe I shouldn't be surprised. I call bias.

     – Janet
When I created the Ninjamatics' Canadian Weblog Awards, I spent a lot of time crafting categories that would be inclusive rather than exclusive. I wanted to see both arts and business represented. I wanted to welcome newer bloggers into the fold. I insisted on both LGBT and Feminist categories to represent segments of the population that are often ignored, and when I created the Health & Wellness category, I made it clear that it was a section that welcomed not only blogs about health care work and healthy living but also by those with mental and/or physical disabilities.

The reason I made sure that was clear is because, although I myself am not differently abled, I have an older brother who is, and I've seen firsthand the social and political erasure that takes place. Over the two seasons during which the Awards have been active, there have been a large number of weblogs by disabled bloggers nominated, and that's something I've been really happy to see. Before these awards, I didn't know that there was such a strong community of disabled bloggers out there, and I have been so proud to host links to it that might help to garner it some attention.

Because of my personal interest in the category, I want to see weblogs by disabled bloggers rise to the top of the Health & Wellness category, too, and to further inclusiveness within the Awards, I specifically set up the jury process so that bias could not play out as a major factor in any category throughout the first round of judging. All 461 nominated weblogs were randomly distributed across 46 jurors arranged in approximately 15 groups comprised of three or four jurors each without mention of category distinction. Each weblog was read specifically for its ability to meet the ten criteria used, which includes a score based on usability and accessibility specifically to keep an eye to inclusiveness as a factor in quality.

The first round is contructed in this way — with a large number of jurors and no category distinctions given to further bias the jurors — so that the feminist, LGBTQ, political, disabled, etc. bloggers will have the greatest opportunity to be judged by the greatest number of judges ranging the greatest number of interests without emphasis being placed upon possibly bias-creating category distinctions. A good blog is a good blog when held up against the ten criteria, regardless of its category distinction. To further that cause, I also specifically instructed the jurors to score the weblogs based on the ten criteria alone and not on whether they themselves would be interested in reading the weblog again in the future.

I am definitely not saying that our jurors aren't prone to particular kinds of bias. I am saying that they are, because they're human, which is why the first round of judging is specifically designed as an attempt to remove the effect of that bias on the Awards results. Good weblogs can be lauded because they are good weblogs and not lose out because of an individual juror's bias.

I know that the disabled community is familiar with having their voices silenced, and I do all I can both to have disabled bloggers represented within the Ninjamatics' Canadian Weblog Awards and to keep bias against them out of the jury process.

Since receiving Janet's comment, though, I have spent more time thinking through the Awards' process and categories, as I'm sure you have while reading through this entry, and I am opening up the comments to your thoughts and suggestions. For instance, would it be better to have a category specific to disabilities outside Health & Wellness?

Thank you so much for bringing this up, Janet! I think this has the potential to be a really good discussion.
« Proposed Changes to the Ninjamatics' Canadian Weblog Awards Category List | Main | The Ninjamatics' 2011 Canadian Weblog Awards Nominees Shortlist »

Reader Comments (12)

What a fascinating discussion. First of all, I know how hard you worked to make this project inclusive, so I know this is a subject you consider important. Categories are always tricky. Just think how many times you and I complained about being "life" bloggers. Perhaps having a separate category might help bring more attention to the bloggers in this category. I can't speak for any of the judges, but Health and Wellness is frequently used in magazines to indicate the area where healthy cooking, vitamins, and exercise tips are offered, so maybe the name of the category itself is misleading to some judges. I'm sure you will figure it out.

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNeil

I wonder if the scores for the ten criteria could be weighted differently for different categories, since distinct attributes are more important for them. As the comment by Janet rightly points out, currency is a very important feature for blogs in the Ecology and Social Justice category, whereas in Art and Photography, aesthetics are crucial. I agree with not labelling blogs according to category in the first round, but perhaps rather than focusing on overall score to progress from round 1 to round 2, the blogs that do best in the criteria that are most pertinent to them should be the ones that move forward (or at least should be favoured because those criteria carry more weight).

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Anonymous, this is something I considered, but, in the end, it wouldn't change the rankings within the specific categories, because even if all the weblogs in Ecology & Social Justice ranked lower overall next to other categories, their ranking against each other within that category is still only measured relative to each other.

Also, no matter what category a weblog is in, each of the ten criteria remain as important. Both design and content are crucial whether a weblog is about art or science, being that the majority of the Design weight is actually about accessibility and functionality, with only 10% of the mark being for actual visual aesthetics. The real meat of the criteria is weighted toward weblogs that are both functional and rich in quality content, and that applies equally across the board. Neither functionality nor content become less or more important based on subject matter in an interactive medium.

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterschmutzie

Better still may be to make one of the criteria that the blog be active within a certain time frame, say the last 30 days, to get more currently active bloggers. That way you avoid a blog as Janet mentioned that hasn't been updated in months because it may never be updated again. With this criteria, you'll be rewarding those who put more work into their blogs because ultimately people will probably visit these blogs based on their wins, and visitors will want to see current content.

Also, I would like to see a section more geared towards bloggers with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities. There are way too many out there to lump the in with "Health and Wellness." Not only that, but as someone else stated, most people tend to think healthy food recipes, vitamins, exercise, etc. when thinking health and wellness.

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

Amanda, this is what I'm really leaning toward for the coming year. I am revisiting a number of the categories, and this is a change that I think is going to stick.

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterschmutzie

My worry with your decision about a disability award, which I think is a good one, is that it looks as if it's being done, after a discussion about how 'really the awards are fair, it's just that disability blogs don't measure up and thus didn't make the cut'. Just like Hollywood said for years that black actors weren't nominated because 'well, they just weren't as good' rather than acknowledge any institutionalized racism. Not that I want to compare the Oscars with Blog Awards but it's an example that fits my point. I challenge you to take a look at an ecology blog that hasn't posted since September to a disability blog that posts every day about disability issues and explain to me the scoring system, or how 'disability' isn't really as important as recipes for soup. Now, I know I sound like I'm carping and bitter. I'm not, I appreciate your willingness to discuss. Also, please, no 'differently abled' stuff please. People with disabilites have long preferred 'people with disabilities'.

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanet

Janet, I definitely wouldn't be creating a separate disabilities category because disability weblogs "don't measure up". What I've realized over the last two years is that the Health & Wellness category is a category that encapsulates two very distinct groups of blogs that each deserve to have their genre.

I know you really take issue with that one blog that made it into the shortlist in Ecology & Social Justice. Not everyone is going to agree about what weblogs made the cut and why. If it didn't make it, it didn't measure up according to not just one but a number of jurors, all of whom came to their scoring decisions on their own.

And Janet, these awards are not about deciding whose subject is more important. If that were the case, then politics and disabilities would sweep the awards every year and every other genre could just pack up and go home. These awards are about quality blogging, which to a large extent requires that we critique the use of the medium, not push our own opinions about whose message is more important.

These are blog awards, not message awards. You could have the most important message in the world, but if you've made poorer use of the medium, then you need to find a different kind of awards to win.

About my use of "differently abled", I do apologize. I am admittedly out of the loop when it comes to the language around disabilities, and intended no offence.

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterschmutzie

I agree - interesting discussion. As one of the finalists in the Health & Wellness category, I do feel some level of discomfort that there are so many different types of health and wellness topics that could be (and in fact are) addressed.

As someone who blogs about mental health issues, I will say, though, that from my vantage point, mental health issues are just as silenced (if not more so) as physical disabilities. There is such a huge stigma around mental health, and I'm so glad to see more and more bloggers addressing this issue.

That said, I do agree that a good blog is a good blog overall, and not just because it addresses an important topic. I am beyond flattered to be a finalist in that category, especially as a new blogger. And regardless of topic, I'm happy to do what I can to promote great Canadian blogs of all genres.

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobin@Farewell, Stranger

Wow! I got up this morning to several emails about this discussion. I am a disability blogger who was nominated in a few categories not making it to the final round. When the awards were announced I checked saw that I didn't get short listed, checked and saw that my friends and other disability bloggers weren't shortlisted and thought "damn and blast" and headed off. I wasn't immediately called to think about bias. So, I have no intention to discuss that here, as it would be something I needed to mull over first, I would not make that allegation lightly. What first struck me, though, was why this discussion, even under the title, is limited to Health and Wellness and Social Justice has been left out of this discussion. Many Disabled Bloggers have written about Blog Awards and how Disability gets stuffed into 'health' when disability issues often have little to do with health or wellness. My experience of disability, and the experience of many with disabilities, has us blogging about access, about attitudes, about purposeful exclusion. We sometimes have health issues attached to the disability, but non-disabled also have health issues attached to living. There is a difference between disability and disease. Discussing disability in the context of health continues to promote disability as an illness that is suffered rather than a way of being that needs adaption. People with cerebral palsy aren't sick, though they may catch a cold, this issue is that, like many with disabilities, they face massive unemployment, a hieghtened likelihood of abuse, victimization and bullying and a huge number of places open to the public - are inaccessible. These aren't health issues, they are social justice issues. But social justice doesn't come to mind when non-disabled people think of disability, 'health' does or 'care' does 'wellness' not so much. Perhaps having a separate 'disability' blog award would make things simpler. I think it's important that Janet raised these issues, I think it's terrific that they are being discussed, so thanks for that.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDave Hingsburger

I too am a disability blogger who wasn't short listed. I don't want to be identified here in this question. I looked closely, when I noticed that bloggers with physical disabilities or who wrote about cognitive disabilities, were shut out at the ten criteria and saw that accessibility was one of them. I then looked to see if shortlisted blogs were at all accessible and found that few were. I wondered then if the judges were told what accessibility was so they knew what they should be judging. For examples, all pictures need to have a written description of content, all videos need to have either captions or the words transcribed, print needs to be able to be easily seen thus size of print and contrast of print matter. Noisy or artistic backgrounds are problematic, clutter and advertising can make it difficult for accessing the essential information in a post. I popped around a lot of nominated blogs and found that few of them even considered accessibility. I'm guessing this is because 'accessibility' of blogs hasn't been a big issue for most and disabled readers aren't considered an important demographic. My question then is, were judges really trained in rating a blog on accessibility. My experience is that most places designed to be accessible by those who don't need accessibility fail miserably. So, over to you. I agree with Dave above in thanking you for having the discussion at all.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranon

Dave and anon, thank you so much for weighing in!

I purposely included accessibility in the criteria and wrote an article to illuminate what that means that was linked to the criteria, but I did not give deeper instruction to the jurors with this category beyond the link to my article in this site. I will definitely take care to do so next year. I think if I had highlighted specifics of certain criteria, issues like this would have been far less likely to be overlooked.

Also, the issue with disability being pigeon-holed as a place of being unwell is part of what is making me more and more uncomfortable with having it lumped into the Health & Wellness category, and I think that's why I keep leaning toward talking about that category here over talking about Ecology & Social Justice. My perspective might sound a bit myopic, because I am looking at changing specific categories, so I keep going back to that.

I am almost certain that I want to have a separate category for disability bloggers this coming awards season, and I would really like input from the disability community in naming the category.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterschmutzie

I am another person who feels that people blogging on disability issues generally should NOT be in health and wellness. A category entitled "health and wellness" is very definitely NOT the place I would even THINK to look for the kinds of blogs I want on disability. If we were to stick to the categories as they are now, I would make a beeline for the category "Social Justice" since that would be the most intuitively obvious category for me. Many of the disability bloggers out there, or certainly the ones I tend to read, are writing about the human rights dimension of disability ... about accessibility ... about inclusion ... about discrimination and negative attitudes toward disability. In other words, about the social justice aspects of life with disability.

My suggestion is that you either bring disability bloggers into the Social Justice category along with people writing about, say, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, fighting poverty, etc., or else consider a separate category where you could place both bloggers with disability (who write about their lives as people with disabilities) and also parents/families and maybe teachers and other close service providers who blog about having people with disabilities in their lives. I would tend to lean toward a separate category on disability (to include a range of physical, sensory, psychosocial, cognitive, etc. disabilities ... I agree with "robin@farewell" above that people with psychosocial / mental health conditions are often invisibilized even within the disability community where that shouldn't happen.

Another side issue: I'm not sure why ecology is lumped in with social justice in the same category? Yes I'm sure that many people who care about saving the earth probably also care about things like equality, inclusion, human rights, and an end to discrimination, oppression, and poverty ... which are the kind of things I think of when I see the phrase "social justice". But to my mind, "ecology" and "social justice" are nevertheless thematically separate topics. It would be kind of like lumping together blogs about animals with blogs about geography and arguing that they belong together because both are about the outdoors (because, hey, most animals live out doors ... and geography includes rivers and mountains and such that are outdoors!). Not offensive or anything, just perplexing.

Re, accessibility: your article is rather long ... are you certain judges are really goign to read it all the way through? It also seems to conflate accessibility issues for users with disabilities with general usability issues. Which is not completely wrong (many accessibility features do, in fact, improve usability for everyone else also), but could lead to the risk that people making a cursory review could carry away the message that, okay, I need to judge whether this web site seems easy to navigate and use. And then they'll judge based on whether THEY find it easy to use, and not really pay attention to all the 20 details about whether pictures have an alt tag providing a text description for people viewing the website through a text only (or audio) interface. Or whether videos have captions (I HATE when videos don't because then I often can't understand them). Or whatever.

I wonder if instead of asking the same people who are judging on characteristics such as "well written" or whatever else to also judge accessibility (and then asking them to learn all kinds of things about how deaf people, blind people, people with attention deficit disorder etc. navigate the web ... when frankly most mainstream people don't seem to value enough to pay attention to even if asked to do so, unless they're basically forced into it by the law or their employer's regulations) ... maybe consider bringing on a separate team of say two to four web accessibility experts to judge just for that aspect alone. Just make sure that the experts are made to understand that they are NOT only supposed to be judging accessibility for people with vision impairments, but ALSO accessibility for people with other types of disability as well. Some people who claim to make their websites accessible turn out to have not even CONSIDERED the need for captions to make video accessible for deaf people, or the need to reduce clutter so people with attention deficit disorder can stay focused on what they intended to read.

Ideally, I would *like* to help promote the idea that web accessibility is something that everyone should care about and everyone should have at least some rudimentary sense how to judge. Because web accessibility, just like all other dimensions of disability inclusion, won't happen until we all take a shared responsibility in making it happen. But I worry that, even with better training, judges who aren't used to thinking about disability accessibility might still overlook problems that seem glaring to users with disabilities.

January 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea S.

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