1999 Conference Proceedings

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Karin Renblad
Doctoral student
Stockholm Institute of Education
Department of Special Education
P.O.Box 47308
S-100 74 Stockholm, Sweden
Tel +46 8 737 96 26
Fax +46 8 737 96 30

Man is a social being, who needs other people around him for his physical, psychological and social well being. The importance of having a social network has increasingly been put in focus. What is a social network and how can it be established?

Social networks involve human relations of various kinds. A network can be based on own choice of person for a relationship, but can also include other persons in the environment, such as neighbours or work mates. Social networks are established through communication/ interaction. Learning to communicate, involve a great deal of social abilities (Lind & Renblad, 1995; Renblad, 1997).

When a person gets older there is a risk that the social network gets thinner and that he/she does not compensate for the decrease through different activities. This can also happen in connection with illness or other personal problems. Another reason for a thin social network could be functional impairment involving difficulties to contact other people or becoming an obstacle for other people to make contacts. Persons with functional impairments might have problems to perform social activities or to travel to and from different places, without assistance. They can become outsiders because they are different, due to negative attitudes. People with mental retardation are in many respects such a group.

Apart from traditional ways of meeting friends, nowadays there are new media to make contacts, e.g. through information technology, internet, fax, mobile phones etc. The world has become smaller and in a few seconds we can communicate/interact with someone on the other side of the globe and get new communication partners. Persons we would probably never have come in contact with in any other way. When it comes to using the telephone as a tool for communication for persons with mental retardation, Brodin (1994) argues that there are great difficulties involved. The ability to communicate is built on the individual's physical and psychological ability, the environment's demands and status (physical and social) as well as access to supporting alternative communication.

This study is part of the project VideoTelephony and Social Interaction (VITSI), with background in a European study on tele-communication, TeleCommunity, RACE 2033, (Research in Advanced Communications Technologies in Europe) 1992 to 1995. Research teams from Belgium, Finland, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Great Britain participated in the study. Within the framework of the project, videotelephones were tried out for persons with functional impairments, such as deaf and hearing impaired, visually impaired, mentally retarded and elderly persons. Ireland, Norway, Portugal and Sweden carried out studies involving persons with mental retardation (Brodin, 1997).

The Swedish study Videotelephony for persons with moderate mental retardation focused on communication, integration and accessibility to telephony. The project was based on earlier studies on still picture telephones and fax communication (Brodin & Alemdar, 1995; Brodin, 1997). These studies showed that for persons with poorly developed speech, the picture constitutes a complement and support to spoken language, and the positive effects are increased when senses of vision and hearing are used simultaneously as information channels.

The aim of the present study was to survey the extent and variation of the social network of 24 adults with moderate mental retardation.

The concrete questions were

Data of the project participants' social network was collected through interviews with staff at six day centers. Staff at group homes and relatives was also interviewed. The members of staff most familiar with the project participants were chosen for the interviews. Selection of day centers and project participants was made in an earlier project, and could therefore not be influenced. Even the staff involved was the same as before with a few exceptions. It is particularly important that the informant has a very good knowledge of the person involved, as the participants have a poorly developed speech or lack verbal skills.

The interviews at the day centers in the Stockholm area were made through videotelephone and in the Jönköping area by personal visits to the day centers, as their videotelephones were not functioning satisfactory. Interviews with staff at group homes were made by telephone. Two of the informants made written statements. The informants were supplied with a questionnaire prior to the interviews. Notes were taken, which were later reported as case studies on the different project participants. The questions put to the staff or relatives included:

The result was analysed from the developmental ecological perspective. The participants' activities were surveyed and analysed from activities made alone, together with others, and with someone standing by and watching (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). The factors influencing changes of the social network regarding, extent, variation and geographical distribution were also analysed.

The result shows that the participants' social network varies between 15 to 25 persons during one week. The network is largely formed by staff and other persons with mental retardation. Other persons involved are, bus and taxi-drivers, staff at shops, post office, banks, teachers and circle-leaders. Contact persons, escorts, and relatives are other categories of network-members.

The factors influencing the social interaction are participants' possibilities to communication, activities, the physical environment, the group, the participants' roles and possibilities to influence, the staff's and environments' social representations, attitudes and behaviour. The possibilities to communication are also influencing the content of the social network. The day centers interaction with the environment, how the participants travel to and from the working place and what their living conditions are. Social clubs, study- and religious organisations. Legal community support, staff's, families' and environments' social representations, attitudes and behaviour.

Factors influencing changes over time, are visual communication devices, transports/mobility of different kinds, own and others. Changes of housing, group homes, legislation and community support, changes within the family and the participants becomomg older.

The participants' social network is mainly staff and other persons with mental retardation. From the societies point of view; they are segregated. The possibilities to influence their situation at work are limited. Many have practically no possibility to influence at all. This also applies to their housing. They have limited possibilities to choose how they live, what person to share with or how to spend their leisure time.

An important factor influencing the social interaction is visual communication devices. The videotelephone can facilitate such contacts with persons other than those at work or at home. However, the technology needs to be improved. The study shows that it is possible to increase the participants' social network, by changed working methods and attitudes, which will stimulate the participants' social interaction and possibilities to influence. The staff can be a bridge between participants other people and society.

Acknowledgment: This paper was supported by the Swedish Transport & Communications Research Board.


Brodin, J. (1997) Självuppfattning hos personer med utvecklingsstörning. En intervjustudie. [Self-conception in persons with mental retardation. An interview-study]. Research-report No 15. Technology, Communication, Disability. Stockholm Institute of Education. Department of Special Education.

Brodin, J. & Alemdar, I. (1995) Videotelephones. A tool for facilitating communication and social integration for people with moderate mental retardation. Research-report No 13. Technology, Communication, Disability. Stockholm Institute of Education. Department of Special Education. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979) The ecology of human development. London: Harvard University Press.

Lind, L. & Renbland, K. (1995) Kommunikation och samspel. Invandrarföräldrar med barn med funktionshinder och deras upplevelser av kommunikation med personer inom svenska institutioner och myndigheter. [Communication and interaction. Immigrant-parents with children with functional impairments and their experiences of communication with persons at Swedish institutions and authorities]. Jönköping: University College

Renblad, K. (1997) Play and Social Interaction - Pre school Children with Immigrant Background. EuroRehab, 3-4/1997, 91-95.

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