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  March 2000

Paralinks is honored to have Heather Proud as a contributing writer. She is a long time personal friend, and has been an inspiration for me as she is such a bright and positive young woman.

Dis?Ability on the Internet
By Heather Proud

Over the past twelve years I have learned much by working, counseling, socializing, studying, advocating, observing, playing, and interacting with individuals with disabilities (IWD). It is still amazing to me that I have adjusted to being paralyzed for over half of my young life, and yet I feel so fortunate to have a good quality of life. I am excited and interested to learn about the Internet the ways it has opened up vast new worlds to IWD by greatly increasing our interactivity and functionality in the world. We are using the Internet to be productive in countless creative and therapeutic ways.

People with disabilities face an ongoing and unique set of issues & challenges that many able-bodied individuals do not understand or are even aware of. As a person living with a disability for the last 18 years, I have gained tremendous experience & insight with the daily problems IWD face on so many levels. I've worked in the local disabled community for many years as an advocate, fund-raiser, peer counselor, educator, case manager, & as director of a small spinal cord injury support group. From this experience I have learned about these challenges: physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and economic.

The physical challenges vary widely for every individual, according to their disability, from those who can live independently to those who are completely unable to take care of their physical needs. The physical limitations may not be obvious when you see some one in a wheelchair, yet even someone who is independent will generally find some thing in the "able-bodied" world which is a barrier to their accessibility. Even two or three stairs into a building or home means an individual in a wheelchair is excluded. In addition to the obvious barriers there are also hidden physical problems (such as chronic pain) which can make participating in ordinary life very difficult.

We all face mental, emotional, and spiritual issues as we live out our lives (karma). We struggle with our inner conflicts and the need for love and acceptance from our world. For the individual with a disability, many issues such as self esteem, optimism, and faith in ourselves, god and our fellow humans are much more challenging. One reason for this is the physical separateness which leads to loneliness and a feeling of personal isolation. Relationships, both personal and romantic, become harder when the individual with a disability has so many needs. It can be overwhelming to a partner, making it more difficult to create and maintain healthy romantic relationships. Marriages often fail after disability occurs.

Adding to the personal physical limitations, an IWD faces societal limitations in order to be successful and reach their goals financially, educationally, professionally, and creatively. Not only are their fewer jobs and professions which IWD can participate in, there is often an inability to accommodate their needs. On the brighter side, advocacy groups, individuals and family members have brought about the Americans with Disabilities Act and have been dramatically increasing the overall awareness of the need for accessibility, accommodation and integration of IWD into mainstream life.

The Internet has also changed and expanded IWD capacity to function in the world. A wide variety of assistive technology devices have been developed, creating easy access to both computers and the Internet. Unfortunately these devices are still very expensive and continue to disenfranchise a large percentage of the disabled community who cannot afford them. I have been lucky. After researching what is available and what would make it possible for me to continue my education (and become more employable), I received a state of the art computer system from the State of Hawaii that allows me, as a quadriplegic, to go to school. I have never had a computer before or spent more than a couple hours on the Internet at a friend’s house. My experience with this class over the past two months has shown me the incredible vastness of information and interactively that one can experience while on the net. I’ve come to realize that for IWD that this nonlinear and discontinuous environment offers amazing freedom. The Internet is exceptionally supportive to those IWD that have always experienced so many limitations in the able bodied world. It’s like a bright new window into a room that traditionally has been very dark.

In a disabled person’s world, the concept of space & time is very different. Most are often unable to devote the large chunks of continous time that our society demands of it’s participants in employment/school/social settings. I personally cannot sit comfortably in a wheelchair for more than a few hours at a time. Until recently, I have not been able to "work" because of this. The fact that the Internet opens up new possibilities to work and go to school from one's home is an outstanding development for the disabled community who have been waiting a very long time for just such an opportunity to participate in mainstream/cutting edge life.

The Internet not only creates quality business/educational connections, but also healthy personal support systems. Networking through the Internet allows thousands of connections to be made which enhance our awareness that others are coping with the same situation. Knowing that someone is out there to talk with about a variety of disability issues helps ease the sense of isolation. A feeling of belongingness counsels loneliness. The disabled community has a strong presence on the Internet with numerous chat rooms & news groups available to discuss the issues. I’ve been exploring now for 2 months and still feel that I have barely scratched the surface of what out there. I want to know more!!

Individuals with disabilities are using the Internet to produce better lives for themselves both personally and economically. Many of these individuals have websites. They are sharing their personal stories of how they became disabled and how they have adjusted and accepted living with their disability. Their stories are inspiring and poignant. These people are addressing their issues and challenges in positive ways that encourage excellence within the global disabled village. By doing this they are an inspiration to others and are able to express their own personal creativity. This information is particularly helpful to people who recently have become disabled.

As I have been writing this essay, my awareness of IWD on the Internet has been radically broadened; a learn as you go project. It has been enlightening and inspiring beyond my imagination. The Internet in no way takes away from my personal real life interactions, but has enhanced and expanded my perspective of the unlimited possibilities and opportunities in the virtual world!!! ---Heather Proud 

Reproduced in Paralinks with the expressed consent and approval of  the author.