Friday, June 14, 2013

Relax, Embrace The Internet

picture of wheelchair user with laptop
I used to worry that the Internet would become a disability ghetto. I'm not worried about that so much anymore.

Although I get the impression that I'm not as obsessed with social media as some, I both use and enjoy Twitter, blogging, and to a somewhat lesser extent Facebook. I also get most of my general news and commentary on websites. I listen to podcasts. I'm not a gamer, and for some reason I never took to texting, but I have a laptop, smartphone, tablet, and AppleTV. In other words, I'm quite comfortable with living, working, and playing on the Internet. I'm no Luddite.

Yet, I've always been wary of claims that the Internet offers some very special, amplified benefit specifically to people with disabilities. My main reservation has been similar to what a lot of technology-skeptics fear for everyone … that the "virtual" interaction will replace "real" interactions. There's a higher risk of something like that for people with disabilities, especially when technology and social media are held out as solutions to the problems of accessibility and prejudice, when perhaps they are less solutions than avoidance mechanisms.

The answer to neighborhoods that aren't wheelchair accessible is more accessibility, not shopping, socializing, and working on the Internet, stuck in your bedroom. The answer to worrying about how people will react to your disabilities isn't to restrict your interactions to a virtual world where people don't have to know that you look weird or talk funny. Most of all, I'd hate to see the availability of the Internet used as an excuse to stop worrying about accessibility, isolation, and discrimination.

That's the way I thought for a long time, but now my thinking has changed a bit.

At this point, I think that the "online world" has to some extent grown past those concerns. First of all, everyone lives at least a portion of their lives online, whether they have a disability or not. If anything, there's a risk of people with disabilities falling behind in access to the Internet; I'm a lot less worried that the Internet will become an isolating trap for people with disabilities. I can still happen, but so far, the Internet is more of a liberation. Second, since I started this blog and website project, I've been blown away at how many people with disabilities use the Internet to reveal themselves, not hide … both their thoughts and their appearance.

So, articles like this one about disabled teens using online services to socialize and "flirt" don't make me as concerned as they once would have done. Anyway, people with disabilities should, if anything, be open more open whatever tools are at hand to live the kind of lives we want.

Maggie Freleng, Women's - June 11, 2013

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