ICTs for Empowerment?: Disability Organizations and the Democratizing Potential of Web 2.0 in Scotland

ICTs for Empowerment?: Disability Organizations and the Democratizing Potential of Web 2.0 in Scotland

Filippo Trevisan
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-083-5.ch019
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In recent years, voluntary organizations and advocacy groups have become increasingly influential in the British political landscape as intermediaries between institutions and citizens. Amongst those, disability organizations constitute an important example because they seek to represent a group which has traditionally been excluded from politics. However, concerns remain with regard to the representativeness and accountability of these bodies, and therefore with the legitimacy of their role in governance. This chapter sets out to understand whether disability organizations can use the internet, and especially Web 2.0 features, to develop a more participatory relationship with disabled people1, thus becoming better democratic actors. In particular, this issue is addressed through the results of an empirical study of Scottish disability organizations’ websites. Whilst the internet seems to possess great potential against disabling barriers, findings for this study are controversial, and disabled users seem at best to be mobilized around a pre-determined agenda rather than genuinely engaged as participants.
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Background: New Technologies, Old Inequalities

In recent decades, British politics has been affected by a decline in public participation, primarily signalled by a steep fall in electoral turnout rates. While some have argued that citizen disengagement from traditional politics in Western democracies is to some extent being compensated by a shift towards alternative forms of engagement and mobilization (Norris, 2002; Wellman et al., 1988), it remains that the emergence of such a (perceived) democratic gap has prompted specific government action to reform governance in the UK both at local and national level.

Therefore, since the landslide election of 1997 and for the following thirteen years, Britain’s New Labour government looked at ways to bring decision-making closer to citizens as part of a comprehensive plan for “democratic renewal” (Ashworth et al., 2004; Stewart, 2003). Besides regulations aimed at making voting easier and the establishment of devolved national assemblies in Northern Ireland and Wales, as well as the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, government efforts have in recent years been directed at encouraging local authorities to involve their residents in decision-making through a series of innovative consultation and deliberation processes, with the aim of becoming more accountable and responsive to their needs (for a detailed description of these see: Stoker, 2004, pp. 108-25). Furthermore, an expansion in citizen participation also seems to remain high amongst the priorities of the current Conservative-led coalition government, as outlined in David Cameron’s “Big Society” speech in July 2010 (www.number10.gov.uk), and initiatives in this direction seem therefore likely to continue.

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