DSQ > Winter/Spring 2007, Volume 27, No.1-2


The digital world and the world of living with a disability, for me, come together over a familiar word — access.

Perhaps the most common way of thinking of access for people with disabilities is physical. That's a discussion of elevators and ramps and wider doorways. The true topic is much wider in scope. It's a discussion of economic resources, getting the attention of an indifferent majority and integration.

To me the greatest influence of the digital world on the world of people with disabilities is providing access not so much to physical barriers as to some of the other kinds of obstacles faced out there in the big world. This, to my observation, manifests itself in a couple of ways, with two of the most important being access to information and access to a community of like individuals.

The Internet has been a communication boon to most anyone who has used it and people with disabilities are no exception. The beauty of it all, to my thinking, is the empowerment of the niche medium. No subject is too small or too specialized to be the subject of a Web site. This is especially true in that corner of the net known as the blogosphere . There is room not just for blogs about disabilities in general, but any subtopic or variation you can imagine. And a blogging set-up can be found for someone who wants to invest literally any level of financial resources.

In contrast, that's compared to a pre-Web world where the channels of communicating even really useful information called for much more expensive options — namely ink on paper. You could start a newsletter, for example, on your niche area of interest. But to support that, you'd need paying subscribers. To lure as many subscribers as possible, you'd be tempted to publish a variety of articles on a range of topics, diluting your niche effect and you still might not reach that critical mass of readers that made your efforts sustainable. That wouldn't mean your info was not very useful. It just meant that the channels for communication didn't play in favor of a niche like yours. Ink and paper always favors the large audience, whether it's to attract enough advertisers or just enough subscriptions. By contrast you can now set up a blog for literally nothing more than the cost of your Internet access. And it can be as narrow as you see fit. And those interested in your info will find their way, eventually. And they will learn from you and share with you.

The number of people with disabilities in the U.S. is often set at 50 million. That sounds like a big number. But it is made up of so many individual situations, it is really a collection of a lot of much smaller niches. That's were digital communication can bring people together and provide utility that wasn't available to people with disabilities before.

The best examples I can think to provide come from the topic area I blog in — travel by people with disabilities. There may have been a publication focusing on travel by people with disabilities that existed before 10 years ago. There were likely a few guidebooks. But thanks to the low entry threshold and the technological flexibility of digital publishing I can think of almost a dozen quite relevant Web sites and blogs on the specific topic of accessible travel that I could access right now. Plus the existence of forums and message boards on travel or destinations allow people with special travel needs to ask questions and often get an answer from someone else who has firsthand experience or knowledge. Sometimes it boggles my mind when I think of the precise questions I have had answered because of the digital ways you can ask for information now. I have found out how many steps a beach access has. I have found out if a ramp was still in disrepair after a hurricane. In some cases, I've even seen pictures.

When we started taking family trips with my son who is a wheelchair user and has cognitive and physical disabilities, the Internet was already a reality. I can't imagine what it was like to try to plan such a trip before the Web. I have to think the result of this kind of information has been liberating, helping people who might not have thought of venturing forth on a trip to have enough confidence to give it a try.

That's access to a fuller life.