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The Importance Of Staying Connected (When You Have A Disability)

October 26, 2012

This is a guest post by Matthew Smith. It was originally posted here earlier today.

Over the years that the Internet has existed as a mass medium (which is more or less my adult life — I first got online at university in 1995, before Google and just as the dot-com boom was taking off), I’ve often heard people put it down as a needless distraction to getting things done, or as a source of junk information, or as if it had little value to anyone except paedophiles, terrorists and other ne’er-do-wells. Some people express such sentiments with sarcasm, such as this tweet I just saw:

For many of us, the Internet is a hobby in itself or even a living; it provides opportunities for programmers, both professional and hobbyist, and support staff; for others, it’s an outlet for opinion. For many others, it’s a means to make and keep up with friends, to share information such as photographs more easily than could be done without. Granted, people of my generation and those before did for centuries without the Net, but the benefits have been enormous and many of us could not imagine life without it. However, some people still do not understand quite how vital it is for some people, and often these people have control over the wires.

One example of these is BT. Unfortunately, BT control the main broadband network in the UK and in many areas, if you want broadband, BT (or a company reselling BT, such as TalkTalk) is your only option. (In some areas, Virgin offer a competing service which uses their cable TV network.) I know of two people who recently had to change their broadband arrangements, in one case because she had been cut off by the BT reseller she and her brother had been using (Orange) when her brother failed to pay the bill; the other simply moved house. Both are disabled, the first with an autistic spectrum disorder (the brother also has a mental health disorder) and the second with a physical condition that requires the use of a powered wheelchair. Both had to wait weeks, and in one case the re-connection got held up because of an engineer’s mistake.

An internet connection is often vital for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, because their conditions make it difficult, or in some cases impossible, for them to get out of the house and meet friends in person (in the case of ASDs, it makes it possible to connect with people without their social difficulties getting in the way quite as much). I am not sure if BT are made aware of which of their customers has a disability and therefore may need more prompt service than others, but there should be some way for customers to make them aware.

People in hospitals often find that they cannot access the internet easily, or cheaply. Of course, some people only stay in hospital a short time and may be too ill, and some might say it shouldn’t really be a high priority, but some people do have to stay in hospital for extended periods and may need to communicate with people outside for matters such as the care of their children or the running of their business, or even to tell people they are being mistreated. In parts of some hospitals the vastly over-priced internet tokens you can buy to use the provided TV/internet machines are the only way of getting online because much of the hospital does not have reception. And while many patients can have visitors, not all can, perhaps because their relatives live too far away, or because they really do not know anyone who lives locally to them or the hospital.

An example of how devastating the loss of internet access can be in this day and age comes from a friend of mine who lives in a country in mainland Europe. She was admitted to a psychiatric unit a few months ago, for reasons I am not sure of but she has an ASD and recurrent depression among other things, and has a physical disability also. During the summer she was told she would not be released for another year, and as acute hospitals cannot keep long-term psychatric patients, she would have to go to a locked long-term facility, which in her case was a centre in a remote area some 90 miles from home. When she got there, she discovered that she could not have any internet access because many of the residents have drug or alcohol problems, and could otherwise have used the internet to order drugs. After just days in the centre, she jumped from a balcony.

After that, she was moved to another acute hospital, where she got her internet access back (which is how I, and her other friends in other countries, found out about it). She was initially told that she could be released if she found suitable accommodation in her home city, but this was overruled by the head doctor on the grounds that he would be responsible for any ill consequences of her release. However, it has been arranged with the centre that she will have her own room and access to the internet when she returns. (Yes, people in psychiatric units in Europe do have internet access, unless they are in a high-security institution like Broadmoor.)

It should not have taken a suicide attempt to get this accommodation. Besides the matter that people who run care homes, psychiatric units and similar facilities should always make suitable accommodations for the individual patients’ needs, not treat them as stock or as pieces on a game board, unless there is a pressing need (related either to that person’s health or anyone else’s safety), someone’s mental health needs should not preclude them having internet access (there is a case for it being provided, if someone cannot provide their own and is not free to leave). The Internet may have been a luxury when I first used it at university in 1995; today, it’s a lifeline for many people. It’s not just a nuisance and a liability for care home managers or a money-spinner for the likes of BT. It’s about time both these groups of people realised the power they have over vulnerable people, or were held accountable for it.

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