January 1997

Root Page of Article: Does CMC Present Individuals with Disabilities Opportunities or Barriers?, by Jennifer A. Gold


There is a downside. The first major barrier to the Internet for individuals with disabilities is access. Surfing the Web requires hardware and software which at the bare minimum consists of a computer, a graphical or text-only Web browser, modem or network connection, and an Internet provider or direct access.

For individuals with physical and sensory impairments who require assistive devices to support access to the Internet (e.g. screen readers, screen enlarging programs, Touchwindow screens, voice and alternate input devices), money and access to technology often become stumbling blocks. In fact, research reflects that students with disabilities "have suffered from below-average access to computers" (Milone & Salpeter, 1996). Fortunately, special education programs were some of the first to receive technology and funding continues to rise each year. However, many programs still continue to use outdated equipment and are limited by access to only a handful of adaptive devices (Milone & Salpeter, 1996).

For adults with disabilities, access can often be an even bigger issue than is the case for students. In a paper entitled, "Virtual community and computer-mediated communication: Opportunities for people with disabilities," (1996), Cherie Bowers points out that access to the Internet is not realistic for everyone, especially since many disabled individuals have relatively low incomes, rely largely on government subsidies, and cannot afford the expense of going online. Jim Tobias, Editor of the "Telecommunications" issue of Technology and Disability (1994) agrees. He writes, "...the convergence of information processing and communication holds both promises and risks for people with disabilities--promises because the ability to substitute 'brain' for 'brawn' opens up greater prospects for complete integration than ever before, risks because the failure to guarantee full, built-in accessibility will make all the new telecommunication technology just another barrier."

Unfortunately, what Tobias writes is all too much of a reality. As an individual with a disability emphasizes, "I think there is a lot to be said for giving disabled people free net access. That might seem like a strange thing to want, but when you can completely change a person's life by connecting them to a new world, and for less money than it costs to put in a ramp, shouldn't they have that opportunity?" (Egers, 1996)

Relationship Barriers

Another potential barrier to using the Internet can occur when individuals try to move online relationships off-line. For some individuals, primarily those whom are limited by their physical capabilities, having the expectation that after meeting online, the relationship will continue off-line, is an unrealistic one. In a study which examined the creation of the relational world through Internet discussion groups (Parks & Floyd, 1996), researchers found that of those who participated in the study (176 men and women ages 15 to 57 recruited through 24 newsgroups), 63.7% of the participants supplemented CMC with off-line contact; over one third of the participants used the telephone (35.3%), another 33.3% met face to face, and 28.4% communicated through postal mail. As Parks & Floyd point out, "These findings imply that relationships that begin online rarely stay there." For individuals who were once excited by online communication, those who are unable to sustain relationships off-line may feel a sense of disappointment, isolation, alienation from others, and loss in self-esteem (Bowers, 1996).

Finally, others worry that individuals with disabilities may eventually limit their communication to online communication where they feel safe. Some worry that individuals may only communicate amongst peers who understand them, such as in disability-related newsgroups. Stephen Turkle, having concerns about forming relationships in virtual communities, worries that individual users of the Internet are not always able to transfer the information and support they receive back to their physical communities (Bowers, 1996). And still others question whether individuals may eventually come to feel even more isolated than before due to the often hostile, nonsocial, and impersonal nature of the Internet. --

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