April 6, 2016

Guest contributions


People joke that along with water, food and air, the internet is now one of life’s basic needs. Nobody can deny that the internet is useful. It plays a vital role in education, work, social lives and many other of life’s domains.

For one group in particular, the internet is especially powerful.

People with disabilities are marginalised and underrepresented in education, politics, advertising and employment. Disabilities vary, some impact communication skills and others limit people’s opportunities through physical impairments. For instance, it may be hard to socialise when the restaurant is up a flight of stairs and your wheelchair weighs 150 kg. Those with autism can often struggle in busy social situations, leading to reduced social interaction and friendships. It’s not that these people are unsociable, life is just full of barriers that can make things difficult.

Yet the potential for the internet to benefit people with disabilities is still untapped to a large extent. One reason being is that as the internet is so widely used, it is also widely abused. Criminals can evolve just as fast as lawmakers and educators, targeting newer internet developments such as social media and smartphones. People with disabilities are a group that can be hit hard by cybercrime and internet-based abuse.

However, just because there exists risk in internet use, it is important not to lose sight of the benefits. For people with disabilities, the internet is a great equaliser. If you can type (even using adaptive equipment like speech recognition), you can be on equal footing with others through the internet (social media and email). Users may be deaf or blind, yet the internet allows disclosure of this to be a personal decision. As a result, those with speech impairments can communicate on equal footing with others while people with sensory impairments and anxiety can interact with virtual crowds without being inhibited by the pressures of physical social interaction.

To preserve the immense benefits the internet can bring, education is the most powerful tool to help people with disabilities online. Concerns relevant to every internet user –  keeping passwords safe, guarding financial information and the permanency of shared information and pictures –  can be managed through training and education.

With education comes confidence, allowing users to focus on the benefits while mitigating the risks. Sadly, the internet develops at such a rapid pace which can leave many education programs lagging behind in content and efficacy.

So what can be done? If you’re wanting to learn more about internet safety for yourself and others, try a simple Google search! Plenty of information exists concerning web safety online, but like all things it takes patience and persistence to distil this information and separate good advice from bad. Read widely and think logically. Learn the terminology. The more consciously you think about your internet use, the more skilled you’ll become in spotting the risks.

For people with intellectual disabilities, self-education can be harder. This is where specialised education campaigns focusing on web safety need to be implemented. These campaigns should not solely focus on the people themselves, but also parents, friends and teachers. Importantly, they must be framed in a manner that doesn’t discourage internet use or scare people away.

The internet is no longer seen as a fad or a luxury. Everybody benefits from web safety education, particularly people with disabilities. Nobody wants their heart broken or bank account emptied. By staying safe online we can focus on the fun stuff, like YouTube videos of cats.

– Carl Thompson

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