What effect has the internet had on disability?

There are more than 10 million people living in the UK with a long-term illness, impairment or disability according to the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) and although medical treatment and pre-birth screening have reduced this number dramatically over the last half-century, many of the problems faced by this population have not changed. Compared with their non-disabled counterparts, people with disabilities in this country are still more likely to be poor and unemployed with fewer qualifications than non-disabled people, more likely to be the victims of crime and more likely to experience occupational and social discrimination.

This was supposed to have been fixed by the web. After all, to put it crudely, there are no staircases online. If you subscribe to the mythology that’s been spun into the fabric of the internet by technological utopians, the web should be a totally accessible resource available to all, where everyone can achieve personal and social self-actualisation despite the barriers that they face offline. It should be the great leveller. It should be, but, as always, it’s more complicated than that.

In 2003, I started an MSc in social psychology, with all the wide-eyed expectations of a baby academic. I was going to prove that the web – and specifically online games such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft – could provide benefit to society. To demonstrate my hypothesis, I chose to look at the qualitative and holistic experiences of people with severe physical disabilities; I interviewed game players who had injured their spinal cords so severely that they were almost completely paralysed.

My argument was that with the right tools, physical disability becomes mutable in cyberspace; the act of achieving goals that relied on the brain rather than on brawn – making the physical corpus obsolete – would serve to increase players’ well-being. Indeed, thanks to a variety of exceptional engineering adaptations, my participants were able to play with able-bodied online people, exercising their psychological identities rather than the physical ones that tended to dominate social interactions offline.

 Two results stood out. First, the web offered personal and physical anonymity to a population that experiences a significant amount of stigma offline. In general, for people such as my participants who cannot “pass” in real-world situations the web allows them to experience an unrestricted liberty. They can interact in a place where there are no barriers to access that single them out. The disembodied nature of online interaction gave them a sense of control over how they were perceived and transformed the power dynamics that exist offline when a disability is overt.

Second, the web was described as an empowering platform, giving the participants the sense that they were in charge of their own destinies. Extending this observation to the wider web, levelling up doesn’t just happen in games; getting information, getting a posse, being an agent of change through whatever means gives the individual an ego boost and is far more achievable now than it ever has been.

I was pleased with these results, but surprised at how little research has been done looking at these questions, given the potential social benefit. Almost universally, the results of the few small-scale studies that have been published in this area indicate that the web is an untapped resource for disabled people, with the potential to transform social participation by providing information and networks that should reduce the negative effects of social isolation. Based on these, there are countless initiatives to get people with disabilities online, such as Race Online 2012 and Directgov, and to reduce the significant access gap.

Unfortunately, this is part of the problem. All of this supports a theory called the social model of disability, which says that it’s society that creates the barriers to access and equality that people with disabilities experience, rather than the disability itself. In other words, it is architecture, culture and social constraints that exclude disabled people from full participation. Clearly, the web has been a great place to test this: remove the obvious barriers and the evidence uncovers happy, fully-functioning members of society. But these barriers still exist. We still live in the real world.

One of the strongest criticisms against the social model is that by hiding a physical disability, or attributing non-physical impairments to clumsiness or inattention, disabled people perpetuate a discriminatory society and reinforce the perception of personal tragedy, inefficacy and stigma. The web is the greatest passing platform of all: everyone is normal online. And so where does that leave our attitudes towards disability offline?

Over the past decade, there have been improvements for people with disabilities in employment, education and participation in cultural activities, but the web is not the only factor in this change. Unsurprisingly, the gaps between disabled and non-disabled people in these areas are still significant; the ODI reports that only 48% of disabled people are employed, compared with 78% of non-disabled people.

If the web’s limitless potential was actually being realised, we would expect greater changes to have occurred over the past 20 years. It seems ironic that a technology that has the potential to empower a group may also be perpetuating divisions.

The web has transformed the personal experiences of disabled people by creating a playing field for empowerment with access to information, connections and a platform for change. Yet we must reflect on our social attitudes to disability in the offline world instead of ignoring what we can’t see online. Only then will the web’s effect on disability become truly clear.