Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2005, Volume 25, No. 2
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Building Social Capital:
A Study of the Online Disability Community

Jin Huang
George Warren Brown School of Social Work
Washington University
St. Louis, MO 63130
Email: jhuang@gwbmail.wustl.edu

Baorong Guo
George Warren Brown School of Social Work
Washington University
St. Louis, MO 63130
Email: bguo@wustl.edu


There are numerous studies about the relationship between technological aspects of the Internet and disability. However, little is known about the social impact of the Internet on the disability community. Using the theory of social capital, this study aims to understand social aspects of the Internet, specifically its impact on the network building of people with disabilities. Based on survey data from a sample of 122 individuals with disabilities across China, the current study explores the characteristics of social capital in the online disability community and effects of Internet use on building social capital. The findings suggest that the online disability community has high levels of social capital and that greater involvement in online activities can generate higher levels of social capital for people with disabilities.

Keywords: online disability community, social capital, Internet use, China

I. Instruction

Information and communication technology, revolutionized by the Internet, has been recognized as an instrument with the potential to improve quality of life, increase employment opportunities, and promote social inclusion for individuals with disabilities (e.g., Bricout, 2004; Ritchie & Blank, 2003; Zheng, 2002). Although Internet accessibility remains a barrier for the majority of the disability community in China, technology development and diffusion has made it the case that people with disabilities are getting increasingly involved in Internet use. The Internet provides a common open space that allows disabled individuals to reach various news and information and build relationships on the Web (Guo, Bricout & Huang, 2005; Zheng, 2002).

According to a recent study, hundreds of Web sites have been established targeting the disability community in China, most of which are designed and managed by disability organizations or individuals with a disability (Guo, Bricout & Huang, 2005). Some of these Web sites show high levels of professionalism in serving people with certain types of disability. People with visual impairments, a group generally regarded as having substantial difficulties accessing the Internet, have built their own Web sites as well. China Disability Services, the most influential disability Web site, has been visited more than two million times since its establishment in 1999.

The social impact of the Internet on people with disabilities is growing rapidly. For instance, online dating services introduce people to each other and may promote marriages among the disability community. Online group-chatting rooms, moderated by volunteers, have improved communication among Internet users with disabilities. Disability policy-related debates and self-advocacy activities are initiated within cyberspace as well. For example, in 2003, a group of people with hearing impairments in China used the Internet to call for removal of the policy constraint on their rights to drive.

The use of the Internet extends social networks of people with disabilities, and an online disability community is emerging. The online community, however, is still too new to comprehend completely (Hopkins & Thomas, 2002). Rather than rushing to acclaim the Internet as a new technology that only brings about positive changes, some researchers have cautiously pointed out that the Internet may become another environmental factor in the social construction of disability (e.g., Blasiotti et al., 2001; Goggin & Newell, 2003; Roulstone, 1998). Functioning within the boundary of extant social conditions and inequities, the Internet does not necessarily produce equal opportunities for people with disabilities. Then, it is important to understand the relationship between disability and social aspect of the Internet. Our understanding of this particular issue will be furthered by specifically examining such questions as "what elements make the online disability community a community," and "how to assess the potential of the Internet regarding its contribution to promoting the well being of disability populations." Most studies on the relationship between disability and the Internet so far have focused solely on technological aspects, and very few examine online dynamics and interactions (e.g., Aspinall & Hegerty, 2001; Davis, 2002; Marcell & Falls, 2001; Noble, 2002; Yu, 2002).

This study utilizes the concept of social capital to explore dynamics existing in China's online disability community. Based on self-reported data from a survey of 122 individuals with disabilities in China, this study is intended to examine the following two questions: (1) What are the characteristics of social capital in the online disability community? (2) How does Internet use impact online social networks of people with disabilities?

II. Literature Review

A. What is Social Capital?

The concept of social capital has been applied to understanding networks of personal relationships (micro) and a wide range of social phenomena (macro), including community practices and economic performances (Coleman, 1988; Putnam, Leonardi, & Nanetti, 1993; World Bank, 1999). Depending on theoretical backgrounds and specific applied dimensions, social capital can be approached from different angles (the U.K. Office for National Statistics, 2001). Putnam (1993), the most important theorist within the social capital paradigm, defines social capital as "trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions" (p.167). Contextualized in the online community, social capital is "the sum of the actual and potential resources embedded within, available through, and derived from the network of relationships possessed by an individual or a social unit" (Cummings, Heeks, & Huysman, 2003).

Despite variances in the definition of social capital, there is wide agreement on the composition of social capital, including the role of networks, personal trust, and civic norms (Coleman, 1988; Cummings, Heeks, & Huysman, 2003; Putnam, 2000). Social networks, constituting the basis for trust, cooperation, and collective action, are closely related to individuals' well being, community development, and economic growth (Johnson & Temple, 1998; Kawachi, Kennedy, Lochener, & Prothrow-Stith, 1997; Woolcock, 2001).

B. Social Capital and the Online Community

The term social capital initially appeared in community studies (Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998). Putnam (2000) brought this concept into widespread use in community studies. Despite considerable criticism toward the use of social capital (e.g., DeFilippis, 2001; Fine, 1999), Putnam's argument about the importance of social capital in the promotion of economic growth and prosperity has been broadly accepted. Being part of community studies, research on the online community is connected with the concept of social capital as both emphasize networks (Huysman & Wulf, 2004).

Two major topics have emerged from the literature on social capital and the online community. One is about the consequences of Internet use on users' social capital in the off-line community. It is believed that being involved in online communication could impair interpersonal trust and community engagement because it decreases offline communication (Kraut et al., 1998). But some argue that the growth of cyberspace can facilitate the construction and development of social capital in many ways (Lin, 2001). One study shows that Internet use at both the aggregate (cities) and the individual levels is connected with higher social capital, especially with higher levels of trust (Pierce & Lovrick, 2003). Franzen's (2003) longitudinal study suggests that Internet use is not associated with a reduction in respondents' networks or with the time they spend socializing with friends.

The other topic focuses on building social capital in the online community. Hopkins & Thomas (2002) propose the concept of a "matrix" with four dimensions (embeddedness, autonomy, informal, and formal) to examine social networks in the online community. Cummings, Heeks, & Huysman (2003) develop a three-dimensional model of social capital in online networks, which stresses the structure of online networks, the flowing information in networks, and human relationships within these networks. Clearly, the focus of both social capital models is networks, and both models suggest social capital as an important concept to examine dynamics in the online community.

Although studies on social capital and the online community are proliferating, there is little literature specifically relating these topics to populations with disabilities. The current study will explore the development of China's online disability community through the perspective of social capital. In other words, it will focus on the impact of Internet use on social capital in the online community (rather than off-line community).


A. Data

The data used for this study is from a survey conducted by a group of researchers in August 2003 to examine the Internet, a common open space as well as a digital divide among the disability community and the society at large (Guo, Bricout, & Huang, 2005). One hundred twenty-two individuals with disabilities from 25 provinces of China participated in the survey. Of these respondents, 45.8% are female and 54.2% are male. The average age is 28.4 years. This study uses the category of disability based on the definition of disability provided by the 1990 Law of China on the Protection of Disabled Persons. Respondents in the sample have one of the following disabilities: mobility disability (60.7%), visual impairment (15.6%), hearing and speaking impairment (20.5%), mental disability (1.6%), or multiple disabilities (1.6%). Although this category of disability is consistent with the legal definition in China and then makes it convenient for respondents to identify themselves, it has limitations by focusing on individual impairment while ignoring the sociopolitical nature of disability.

B. Variables

1. Internet Use

This concept is measured mainly along two dimensions: (1) When was the first time the participant used the Internet? (2) How long does the participant spend using the Internet each day? On average, it has been 3.5 years since participants' initial exposure to the Internet. Respondents spend an average of 207 minutes on the Internet each day and an average of 73.7 Yuan (US$9) /month for Internet access. Of the respondents, 18.3% need ancillary equipment to use the Internet. This is roughly congruent with the percentage of the respondents having visual impairments (15.6%). Most of the respondents (77.7%) use the Internet at home (See Table 1; all the tables and the figure in this study are available through request to the authors.)

2. Social Capital

As a multidimensional concept, social capital can be measured in various ways. Although the survey does not specifically focus on the concept of social capital, some questions included in the questionnaire are found to fit the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS, 2004) measuring framework of social capital. Considering its compatibility with the data used in this study, the ABS framework is adopted here to measure social capital (See Figure 1).

The ABS framework is a hierarchy of three levels: attributes, elements, and sub-elements. Social capital comprises four attributes: network qualities, network structure, network transactions, and network types. 1. Network qualities comprises two elements, "norms" and "common purpose." The sub-elements of norms are, firstly, "trust and trustworthiness," and secondly, "reciprocity." The sub-elements of common purpose are social participation and friendship. 2. The elements of network structure are "network size", which includes two sub-elements ("close friends" and "link to institution"), and "network frequency," which has one sub-element ("frequency of contacts"). 3. Network transactions has two elements: "sharing support" and "sharing information." "Sharing support" is indicated by two sub-elements: "provision of support" and "receipt of support." A sub-element of "sharing information" is "use of the Internet to contact government". 4. Network types has one element, "bonding or bridging." This element may be explored by the sub-element of "group homogeneity."

Sixteen variables were identified as indicators of the above four attributes of social capital (see Table 2). These variables are listed as follows:

  1. People contacted online are real.
  2. People contacted online can be trusted.
  3. Tell online friends when feeling depressed.
  4. Online friend told you when they felt depressed.
  5. Sought help through online contacts.
  6. Online friends asked you for help.
  7. Frequency to participate in BBS discussion.
  8. Number of online friends contacted via emails.
  9. Number of friends after using the Internet.
  10. Satisfaction with friendship in general after using the Internet.
  11. Ever used online services provided by governments/organizations.
  12. Average number of emails sent each week.
  13. Average number of emails received each week.
  14. Also contacted online friends through traditional ways (e.g., mail & phone).
  15. Use the Internet to know policies and other public information.
  16. Online friends are mostly people with disabilities.

Respondents were asked to evaluate each of the 16 statements on a 5-point Likert scale. For instance, participants responded to the statement, "You participate in BBS discussion through the Internet," by rating on a scale from 1 (very rarely) to 5 (very frequently).

C. Analyses

First, descriptive statistics will be reported to examine the characteristics of social capital in the online disability community. Second, to examine influences of Internet use on social capital building, the 122 respondents were dividend into two groups: the heavy users and the light users. Then a t-test for independent groups was used to compare the two groups' levels of social capital. The grouping is based on two dimensions: time since first exposure to the Internet and daily time spent on Internet use. A strategy to combine these two dimensions is to first multiply these two variables, followed by a log transformation to reduce skewness. A median split of the new variable was then employed to divide the sample into the heavy users group and the light users group.


A. Characteristics of Social Capital in the Online Disability Community

1.Network Qualities

According to the ABS measuring framework of social capital, network qualities include norms and values existing within networks, which are measured as general trust, reciprocity, social participation, and friendship. Regarding general trust, two statements, 1) "people you contact online are real" and 2) "people you contact online can be trusted," were evaluated by respondents. The average ratings for these two statements were 3.20 and 3.40, respectively. More than 40% of respondents felt that people in the online community can be trusted, and about 50% stayed neutral on both statements. Table 3 provides descriptive and correlation statistics of these indicators.

With respect to reciprocal behaviors, participants were asked about their frequency of provisions and receipt of emotional support or tangible help (e.g., providing information and resolving computer problems) through the Web. Overall, participants thought that they were supported by online networks. Interestingly, the average provision of emotional support (3.10) is greater than receipt (2.82), and the average provision of tangible support (2.77) is also greater than receipt (2.40). In other words, respondents provided more online support than they received. With respect to online public discussions, two thirds of respondents indicated that their participation was frequent and only 24% "rarely" or "very rarely" joined these discussions.

When asked about the number of friends after using the Internet on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (very few) to 5 (a lot), the average rating is 3.66, indicating that respondents made quite a few friends through the Internet. Over half of the survey respondents contacted an average of nine friends via emails. They also reported that they were in general satisfied with their online friendships, as the average satisfaction level is 3.75 (see Table 3). About 63% of the participants were satisfied or very satisfied with their online friendships.

2. Network Structure

Network structure refers to the network size and network frequency in the online disability community. Other than friendships, the link to institutions is also considered an indicator of online network size. Respondents were asked about the use of online services directly provided by governments or organizations (e.g., application for disability-related welfare and consultation of rehabilitation therapy). The results show that overall respondents seldom used formal services indicated by a mean rating of 1.84. Only 7% of respondents "frequently" or "very frequently" used the services provided by government or disability organizations. There appears a significant difference between formal and informal networks in terms of frequency of contacting. Generally, respondents used the Internet more for communication within informal networks rather than for the use of services provided by formal institutions. This perhaps is attributed to the lack of systematic services available to individuals with disabilities.

It is well-known that the Internet supports convenient correspondence through emails. The data showed that only 24% of participants sent emails "frequently" or "very frequently" and 34% often received emails. Nearly 40% of respondents also contacted their online friends through non-Internet ways, such as face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and mail. In other words, online contacts were not necessarily transformed into non-Internet relationships.

3. Network Transactions and Type

Network transactions refer to interactions in the online community as dynamic objects and may take the form of shared support and shared knowledge/information (mainly policy information). Shared support, indicated by provision and receipt of support, has been discussed above. Information interactions, another aspect of network transactions, is indicated by the use of the Internet for contacting the government. As noted above, respondents seldom use the Internet to access services directly provided by formal institutions. However, the Internet has become an important medium for individuals with disabilities to know disability policies. Results showed that nearly two-thirds of respondents often visited government Web sites to obtain useful information.

Regarding the type of online networks, respondents indicated that their friendships were not limited to those having disabilities. In response to the questions, "Do you agree that most of your online friends are also persons with disabilities?", only 30% of subjects agreed or strongly agree, and 46% did not agree.

The above descriptive statistics indicate that social capital is not evenly distributed among various aspects. For individuals with disabilities, the Internet provides an effective way to share information, build personal trust and online friendships, and access emotional support from informal networks. However, tangible support to deal with specific problems remains scarce, and formal services provided online are not adequately used.

B. Internet Use and Building Social Capital

Results of the t-test revealed that the two comparison groups significantly differ from each other in their possession of online social capital (See Table 4). Heavy users tended to provide significantly more emotional support (t=-3.10, p<.0001) and tangible help (t=-2.26, p<.05) than light users. Compared with the light users group, the heavy users group was more likely to participate in online discussion (t=-2.71, p<.01). Light users had significantly fewer number of friends contacted via email than heavy users (t=-3.66, p<.0001). Furthermore, the heavy users group was more satisfied with their online friendships than the light users group (t=-2.39, p<.05).

The use of the Internet also impacts the possibility of extending online networks to offline transactions. Heavy users contacted online friends through offline methods (mail and face-to-face meetings) more frequently than light users (t=-2.25, p<.05). Besides, chances that the heavy users group built relationships with individuals without disabilities were greater than the light users group (t=2.89, p<.0001). In other words, networks of heavy users were more diverse in this aspect whereas light users' friendships were more likely to be limited to people with disabilities. This may imply that network types and friendship structures could change with the intensity of Internet use. Regarding network frequencies, the heavy users group had more frequent contact via emails than the light users group (t=-3.27, p<.0001). These findings suggest that greater intensity of Internet use can increase users' social capital.

What has also been noticed is that the two groups did not statistically differ from one another on several other indicators. For instance, the level of trust in the online community did not increase simply because of more involvement in online activities. Second, the data did not show group differences in the receipt of online support. Finally, the two groups were not significantly different from each other in terms of pursuing formal services through government Web sites or organizations' online service system.

In summary, these findings support the proposition that the Internet can be a useful tool for people with disabilities to extend their social networks and enhance the quality of their social interaction. More intensive use of the Internet appears to generate greater social capital for people with disabilities.


The study suggests that, for disability populations in China, the Internet can help build social capital. Respondents in the sample had positive perceptions on a number of aspects of social capital, including general trust, reciprocal supports, social participation, and friendships.

Further empirical research can compare two groups, one having Internet access and the other not having any. Such a comparison will be useful in assessing the influence of the Internet on social capital building. Since the data used in this study was not collected for studying social capital in particular, indicators of social capital lack sophistication and some aspects of social capital are measured only by single indicators. For future research, other measuring frameworks can also be considered. Finally, as a preliminary study of the online social capital in the disability community, the current study does not examine the effects of online social capital on the users' well being. Another direction for future research is to understand how online social capital can influence health/mental health outcomes of people with disabilities. Although beneficial outcomes are expected, the hypothesis cannot be accepted without support from empirical evidence.

The findings of this study also have implications for disability policies. As more intensive Internet use can generate higher levels of social capital for disabled users, people with disabilities can be encouraged to use the Internet. More importantly, to promote Internet use, efforts need to be made to improve the accessibility of the Internet. Such efforts include implementing accessible technology, providing training programs, and reducing Internet-related expenses for disabled people with low income. In addition, the lack of formal online services provided by governments or organizations has prevented Internet users from building connections with institutions. To address this issue, disability service providers need to expand service programs and resources in cyberspace to effectively respond to the needs of people with disabilities.


We would like to thank Gerard Goggin, Christopher Newell, and the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments and careful critique of a draft of this article.


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Copyright (c) 2005 Jin Huang, Baorong Guo

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