January 1997

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


Individuals and students with disabilities perhaps can benefit most from educational technology (Milone & Salpeter). One of the greatest strengths of the Internet for individuals with disabilities is its ability to provide increased opportunities for both accessing information and interacting with peers. Physical constraints can be eliminated that may once have prohibited an individual from being able to communicate with peers, gather information for a report, participate in lectures, or communicate with family and friends across distances. Physical proximity, disability, and time are no longer factors, and through the use of CMC, many individuals experience a sense of independence for the first.

One Internet user, a blind high school student from Washington state, describes the independence he now feels by having access to the Internet. "Getting Internet access was the best thing that ever happened to me. In a way, my computer has become my eyes to the world. I can read a newspaper, talk to people around the world and get materials from class papers, unlike before when I had to depend on others to get the resources I needed." (Vedantham & Breedan, 1995). Another Internet user agrees. "Apart from the freedom the net provides, it also carries a wealth of information on disability issues. There are newsgroups, mailing lists, even IRC channels where you can discuss anything from deafness to bringing about equal rights. I have learned more about my own rare condition in 6 months on [the] Internet than in 23 years of visiting 'experts' (Egers, 1996).

An Internet user commented, "One way that the computer has helped me communicate--and probably everybody here in this newsgroup--is getting us together. I had never spoken with another person with TS [Tourette Syndrome] until finding this newsgroup. Now with a few of them I have found out more about my condition and myself" (Egers, 1996). Computer-mediated communication also provides individuals with disabilities the opportunity to interact with people having similar interests. With approximately six million Americans needing some form of personal assistance to leave their homes (Dorning, 1994), the Internet holds tremendous promise in being able to provide a means for individuals to communicate with others. Through the use of electronic mail, newsgroups, listservs, discussion forums, and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) rooms, individuals are offered opportunities to escape the isolation many experience by the limitations imposed by their disability. In addition, CMC provides opportunities for relationships to form, where support and sharing can occur naturally over time, and individuals can find a place where their stories may be heard. One Internet user who finds being able to communicate online especially important, since he is unable to travel, writes, "You see, I didn't travel and meet these people physically, we interacted in cyberspace. For most net users that is an everyday occurrence, but for a number of us it is especially important, for we can't travel anywhere we like, we are disabled" (Egers, 1996).

A third very powerful aspect of the Internet is in the delivery of information that makes all individuals equal participants in terms of messages. This is especially important for individuals whose disability is often the focus rather than their message. Unlike face-to-face communication, receivers of an online message are able to concentrate on the message without focusing on the sender's disability. As Nancy K. Baym (1995) writes in "The Emergence of Community in Computer-Mediated Communication,"

"Because computer-mediated interactants are unable to see, hear, and feel on another they cannot use the usual contextualization cues conveyed by appearance, nonverbal signals, and features of the physical context. ...Interactants gain greater anonymity because their gender, race, rank, physical appearance and other features of public identity are not immediately evident. As a consequence of this enhanced anonymity, participation is said to become more evenly distributed across group members."

In addition to participants' anonymity when communicating with peers, individuals have a choice in whether or not they want to disclose that they have a disability at all, and if so, at whatever point they feel comfortable. "For some," one individual who really appreciates this element writes, "the anonymity of the net means nobody ever finds out if you are disabled. Unlike real life, nobody needs to know. For me, it is something that I can reveal when I think the time is right. First impressions last, on the net I can make sure the first impression is nothing to do with my disability" (Egers, 1996).

Thus, CMC eliminates the stigma that often accompanies disability, and, as a result, enables others to judge ideas based on merit, as opposed to other factors. This rang true in a course taught online by Professor Norman Coombs at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York. Realizing the equalizing elements CMC provided, one student commented, "By using the computer as somewhat of a 'universal medium', the everyday communication barriers are avoided" and differences such as "being hearing impaired, being Black, White, or Green, being shy or not a good speaker" all disappeared (Kinner & Coombs, 1995).

In a similar case, during a 1991 pilot project between Coombs and Joseph Kinner at Gallaudet University, a university for the hearing impaired in Washington, D.C., the effectiveness of using CMC to include both hearing and hearing-impaired students in an online course from both schools was tested. By the end of the course, one student stood out as a natural communicator online, despite the shyness he expressed in other courses Kinner had taught off-line. For this student, the normal constraints and anxiety imposed by his very weak signing skills were lessened by being able to communicate online; the fact that his signing was not as good as others in his class no longer mattered and as a result, he was able to communicate his thoughts and ideas more effectively. In fact, CMC reduced so many of the normal barriers associated with class participation for this student, by the end, his participation record was higher than any other student from Gallaudet. This is remarkable considering he had been one of the shyest in the class at the onset. --

Contents Archive Sponsors Studies Contact