An imagined community of practice: Online discourse among wheelchair users

  • Leslie E. Cochrane


People with disabilities often live in local communities primarily made up of people without disabilities: in the absence of a geographic community of people with disabilities, the internet becomes a valuable tool for connecting individuals across both local and global contexts.
The power of computer-mediated communication (CMC) to allow individuals to interact both locally and globally has been well-studied in linguistics (e. g. Baron 2008; Page 2012), and this work has included the discourse of e-health (e. g. Hamilton 1998; Locher 2006, 2013) and the online discourse of people with disabilities (Al Zidjaly 2011, 2015). Less research has been done, however, on the implications of online discourse for understanding people with disabilities as a linguistic community.

This paper argues that the community of people with disabilities can be viewed from a linguistic perspective as an imagined community of practice: an imagined community, because members recognize their common belonging even if they do not interact locally (Anderson 1983); a community of practice, because members use recognizable, if not identical, disability practices and engage in shared sense-making (Eckert 2006; Eckert/McConnell-Ginet 1992). This understanding of the community of people with disabilities is evidenced in online blogs by wheelchair users.

A close discourse analysis of the blog posts shows shared sense-making around disability practices, even though individual bloggers’ practices may vary according to their specific strategies for accommodation. In their posts, the bloggers construct their disability identities in terms of practice and imagine themselves to belong to a community that is distinguished by disability practice. The analysis reveals shared sense-making: in particular, the way that the bloggers position themselves in opposition to the societal discourse that people with disabilities are an inspiration to people without them. In this way, the bloggers demonstrate their membership within an imagined community of practice made up of people with disabilities.

Cochrane, L. E. (2017). An imagined community of practice: Online discourse among wheelchair users. Linguistik Online, 87(8).