1999 Conference Proceedings

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"INTERNET UTILIZATION BY PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES"

Jenny Clark
Department of Special Education
Eastern Michigan University
Ypsilanti, MI 48197
(734) 487-3300
email: jenc@online.emich.edu

Dr. Al Bellamy
Department of Interdisciplinary Technology
Eastern Michigan University
Ypsilanti, MI 48197
(734) 487-1161
email: alphonso@ameritech.net

Introduction

The ever changing structure of computer mediated communication has been cited as having tremendous potential for mitigating inequalities associated with personal characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, and social class (Dubrovsky, Kiesler and Sethna, 1991). This proposition is particularly relevant to persons with disabilities (Lathrop, 1995).

The very nature of computer mediated communication is that of anonymity. For a person with a disability, this can be a viable opportunity to communicate with others without having the other participant's preconceived notions of disability affecting the relationship. Furthermore although several studies have examined Internet utilization, there are none that have systematically investigated the ways in which persons of disabilities employ online services.

The usefulness of online support groups has been studied recently (Phillips, 1996) in a comparison of alcoholics anonymous (AA) groups in traditional settings and through listservs and designated chat support rooms. There are many known advantages of online support groups such as no transportation requirements, the ability to interact with a similar group to oneself, can meet with people from around the world, a more discreet nature and an ability to discuss personal issues more in writing than speech due to the sensitivity of the topic. It would appear that all of the above mentioned features are even perhaps more beneficial to persons with disabilities. To examine the effectiveness of such interaction, further questions concerning the availability, usage, benefits and disadvantages of online support groups would need to be examined.

Very little is known beyond basic conjecture, concerning the manner and extent to which online services enhances the quality of life for persons with disabilities. The purpose of this study is to empirically examine the patterns of Internet utilization by persons with disabilities and to determine the degree in which Internet engagement is associated with positive outcomes within the lives of the disabled. We are particularly interested in the persons with disabilities usage of computer mediated communications (CMC) including email, listservs, chat rooms, online agencies and support groups. From this study, we would like to show which forms of online media are most conducive to persons with disabilities in terms of education, vocational goals, support roles, and information retrieval.

More specifically, this study will attempt to explore the following research questions:

Sample

Data relevant to the primary research questions in this study was collected from "75" individuals with disabilities from the following sources:
  1. Individuals responding to the survey that was posted on electronic bulletin boards in online support groups.
  2. A random sample of individuals from local, state and national disability support groups.

This survey was distributed through electronic mail, posted to electronic Bulletin Boards, posted in online support groups, sent in postal mail to local disability support groups and signed in ASL by certified interpreters. The survey was composed in braille, large print and ASCII format. The researchers conducted telephone interviews with people who were not able to fill out the questionnaire on their own. Measurements

A survey questionnaire was constructed consisting of items related to Internet utilization, interpersonal communication, and self-esteem. Internet utilization was measured by multiple choice type scales. Interpersonal communications and self esteem (Rosenberg, 1971) was measured by Likert type scales consisting of five scale points and anchors ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The alpha reliability for the Rosenberg's self esteem scale was .87. Results

Results from this study will have been analyzed and be available for publication in January of 1999. Upon request, the results will be sent in accessible format to all participating subjects. From this study, we would like to show which forms of online media are most conducive to persons with disabilities in terms of education, vocational goals, support roles, and information retrieval. It is anticipated that results from this study will influence distance education planning for adults with disabilities. Information concerning perceived barriers to successful communication through the computer will influence developers of WWW pages, agencies serving individuals with disabilities, online support groups, educational institutions and commercial enterprises.

Bibliography

Dubrovs, V.J., Kiesler, S., & Sethna, B.N. (1996). Internet Communication. Journal of Communication. 46, 14-33.

Lathrop, D. (1995) How to Get Virtually Screwed: Finding Yourself Sexually in the Online Underworld. World Wide Web, http://mainstream-mag.com/gimpsex.html

Phillips, W. (1996). A Comparison of Online, E-Mail, and In-Person Self-Help Groups Using Adult Children of Alcoholics as a Model. World Wide Web, http://www1.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/acoa.html

Rosenberg, M. (1965) The Adolescent Self-Image. Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University Press.


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