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Technology is the key to inclusion

What would you imagine to be the greatest equaliser for disabled people over the last 40 or so years? Accessible transport? Direct payments? Or being able to employ personal assistants? Well, I would argue that for many disabled people – particularly people with significant or severe impairments – that technology, especially the computer and the internet, has played a huge part in improving their quality of life.

If you take the internet away, but left all the other advancements, people may have continued to manage their lives and have freedom of movement, but what they would be lacking is a voice, a means of expressing their viewpoint to the whole world. Their community would shrink to the number of people they may meet over the course of a week. That may be good for people within education or the limited work they could do, but if they were prone to illness or fatigue which meant they, like myself,  stayed at home most of the time, then contact with others would be limited, causing social isolation and possibly depression.

And what about work? Without email, we would be stuck printing out letters, posting them, and waiting days or weeks for a reply, or using the telephone. As someone with cerebral palsy resulting in a speech impairment and poor hand control, both options are not ideal and would leave me at a significant disadvantage within any work situation. The internet has solved this. With the internet, I can work on an equal basis to many of my peers, as well as having many friends and colleagues around the world. Over the years I have worked in America, Australia, and just recently Asia, without leaving my front door. You can see just how useful I have found the internet in enabling me to work and communicate with others across the world by viewing this webinar on enabling technologies for the disabled.

While many organisations have rightly raised concerns about the availability of the internet to some people (the Office for National Statistics last year reported 13% of people reporting physical or sensorial disability as a reason for households not having internet access), it should be acknowledged that the computer and internet enabled innovations such as online banking and shopping have also been the solution to many accessibility concerns. The internet meant that what once we could only have done in town, with all the difficulties that can bring, can now be performed at home on any day or night. It is absolutely amazing at what can now be achieved using the internet, in ways that would have been unimaginable just ten years ago.

I believe what have been life changing for so many disabled people, regardless of their level of impairment, has been social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. These have not only given disabled people a voice but also the ability to interact with their peers on a new and sometimes intense level, allowing politics to be personal. Social networks have enabled many new groups to be formed by disabled people on a whole range of issues without the physical restrictions and costs of old fashion committees. Companies serving people with disabilities like Fish Insurance also use Facebook and Twitter to engage with their customers, enabling a direct, transparent and continuous dialogue.

The internet and social networks are bringing people from all over the world together who have similar interests and can find opportunities to work together. This is good news for disabled people, because they are then on an equal footing with others, providing a level of inclusion that is still not fully understood.

While a lot of other technology – sophisticated prosthetics, text-to-speech software and so on – have helped disabled people in many ways, I believe the internet has been the defining development that is making our full inclusion possible. We are now more equal to others in many ways, including our individual representation of ourselves – especially as our Facebook and Twitter profiles have become modern day status symbols – and in how we interact in society. The barriers to interactions are removed, in comparison to the physical ‘real world’, whilst the ability to ‘network’ online means we do not need go out to communicate. This in turn enables quality opportunities to pursue real world activities, allowing us to make better use of our time and strengths.

Technology, computers, and the internet have revolutionised the lives of so many disabled people, and I believe will continue to do so in the future in ways we simply cannot yet imagine.

* Simon Stevens is a leading independent disability issues consultant, trainer and activist. He writes extensively and often controversially for titles including the Huffington Post and Access. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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