January 1997

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Does CMC Present Individuals with Disabilities Opportunities or Barriers?

by Jennifer A. Gold

We've read about the promise computer-mediated communication (CMC) holds for communication, social interaction, and the exchange of information. We've also heard the buzz words: computer conferencing, electronic mail, newsgroups, listservs, discussion forums, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) rooms, computer-assisted instruction (CAI). Indeed, it appears that CMC has the potential to provide a range of opportunities for people of all ages, cultures, and socio-economic classes. []Ferris defines terms used in CMC application areas.

For individuals with disabilities, CMC holds, in some ways, even greater promise. Through the use of the Internet, opportunities exist for individuals to interact with peers, gain greater access to many kinds of resources, and eliminate some of the physical constraints of communication. Increased use of online communication may improve literacy skills, and the disabled may gain opportunities for home employment.

While the Internet holds the potential to break down barriers often associated with a person's disability, there are limitations imposed by the Internet as well. In Computer Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom (1995), authors Berge and Collins point out, " becomes clear that there are many benefits to using CMC, but there are also some limitations that must be recognized."

This article describes both the --opportunities and barriers the Internet holds for individuals with disabilities.


"Technology is not neutral. Each technology has properties--affordances--that make it easier to do some activities, harder to do others: The easier ones get done, the harder ones neglected. Each has constraints, preconditions, and side effects that impose requirements and changes on the things with which it interacts, be they other technology, people, or human society at large" (Norman, 1993).

Technology indeed is not neutral. Neither is the Internet. It brings with it a set of opportunities, but also a series of limitations. This is especially true of the Internet for individuals with disabilities. We need to realize that the Internet is just one medium. If we rely upon it to change the lives of individuals with disabilities, then we are using the medium incorrectly. But if individuals have access, and they are informed of the physical, social, and emotional advantages and limitations of the medium, they can use the Internet as an enhancement to traditional forms of learning and interaction, not as a substitute. Then the power of the Internet will be realized. And before long, we may hear even more people say that getting Internet access was the best thing that ever happened to them. [TOC]


Jennifer A. Gold ( is Research Assistant for the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP) located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts. She is a contributing writer for Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine.

Copyright © 1997 by Jennifer A. Gold. All Rights Reserved.

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