People who have developmental disabilities are safer and healthier when they are welcomed as valuable members of their community. We have made great strides in the past 50 years in including all people in schools, at workplaces, and in the general community. One area where people with disabilities are not proportionally represented is the virtual world. Canadians average over 45 hours a month online and spend much of that time on social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, connecting with other people. With some notable exceptions, the voice of people who have developmental disabilities is missing from this digital space. It is time for people who have developmental disabilities and those who care about and work in the inclusion field to establish a strong voice on the internet.
Strong Voices for Community Living
Social media has also been helpful in allowing people who have difficulty communicating verbally connect with others. Carly Fleischmann, a young woman who has autism and doesn’t use words to communicate, has established a Facebook site where she connects with others and helps people living with autism <www.facebook.com/carlysvoice>. Without a keyboard, it would be unlikely that she would have ever been able to communicate as eloquently as she does with the people around her; this demonstrates that the physical technology used for social media can also be a huge benefit for people who prefer to communicate in a non-speaking way. On Twitter, I follow @Gretchenleary, a poet who has Asperger syndrome. She offers a perspective on life that enriches my understanding of people.
Inclusion on the Internet
I have spoken on numerous occasions with family and friends of people who have developmental disabilities and are concerned that the person they care about will get into trouble if he or she establishes a presence on social media. I tell them that the opposite is true. The more friends and family that a person connects to on social media, the safer they are. They will have an online community who will be looking out for them and making sure they are safe. There have been a couple of attempts at creating “safe” social media sites exclusively for people who have developmental disabilities. Of course these have not worked as young people want to be on Facebook, Twitter, and whatever other sites are popular with people their age. Social media’s strength comes in its ability to include, so trying to create a segregated digital world is counterproductive (and, reflecting the real world, probably less safe for those participating as the eyes of the community are not there). Social media allows the world to see people who have developmental disabilities doing the same things as everyone else in a much more interesting way than a written report.
Organizations Need to Get Online
Semiahmoo House Society is establishing a presence on Facebook and Twitter. Many other organizations are also creating strong online presences. This past year, at the BC Association of Community Living Annual Conference, I had the pleasure of participating as an audience member in a social media workshop put on by Aaron Johannes and Jules Andre Brown from Spectrum Society for Community Living. They have established a great blog site where they share their forward-thinking ideas about Community Living. Working with a diverse group of people participating in the workshop, they efficiently and expertly established the reasons why people involved in the inclusion movement need to get online:
1) We need to connect to all people (including young people)
2) Inclusion needs to happen where everyone is
3) We need to share people’s stories
4) We need to make other people think about inclusion
The message they are spreading is one that we need to listen to if we want to create an empathetic online world where everyone belongs.
By Doug Tennant, Executive Director, Semiahmoo House Society
Semiahmoo House Society, a non-profit organization located in Surrey/White Rock, exists to provide quality services and supports to people with disabilities and their families in the community.
The Semiahmoo Foundation, located in Surrey/White Rock, exists to fund, support and enhance the programs and services delivered by Semiahmoo House Society.