Have you ever felt lonely, isolated or ostracized because of what you look like or the way you walk or talk? Perhaps you are tween or teen trying to cope with a life threatening diagnosis or accident. Or, maybe you are a parent who requires support, encouragement and information to make the best decisions for your family. These are just some of the circumstances that create the backdrop of Ability Online members’ lives.
According to the 2006 Participation & Activity Limitation survey one in ten North American children live with some form of chronic illness or condition. In Canada, close to five per cent of children under 15 years of age have one or more disabilities. The numbers are even higher in the United States.
In Canada, when a child with a disability turns 18, he/she is often pushed out the door from pediatric care to adult services. Rarely is there someone to coordinate the appointments or the various services and the services themselves are no longer available under one roof. Parents are left to fend for themselves and to find the various therapists and professionals needed to support their child’s health/life needs.
The same child also leaves the nurturing elementary classroom and teachers, to brave the high school hallways – where independence and individuality rule. If a teen reaches these transitional points without preparation, he or she is lost in the system and often feel lost in life.
Self-determination is the drive to determine our own thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and choices over life events. It includes the internal motivation and self-awareness that encourages us to set personal goals based on our interests, preferences, values and needs. Teens with disabilities often have limited opportunities to make choices such as where they want to live, what kind of work they want to do, and what types of activities meet their recreational needs. Providing these teens with easy access to information, skill development opportunities, and to their peers who “get it”, is one way we can help these special youth to achieve their personal best.
Ability Online was founded in 1991 by Dr. Arlette Lefebvre, a psychiatrist at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital when she recognized that her young patients were becoming socially isolated and that this contributed to their low self-esteem, minimized their ability to integrate with the outside community and diminished their hope for the future. Happily, she found that most of these conditions were alleviated when her young charges connected, communicated and confided in each other.
Today, Ability Online (www.abilityonline.org) is a state of the art online community with high safety standards for its more vulnerable members, which utilizes accessible technology to bring support, information & skill development opportunities to youth/young adults with all kinds of disabilities or chronic illness from anywhere there is Internet access. This secure, monitored online community began long before the Internet was a household commodity, as a bulletin board service, connecting youth with disabilities for friendship & support in a bully-free, nurturing environment. Now 20 years later it is the monitored, supportive environment, inclusive membership, & skill development designed for personal growth (that gets its strength from strong community partnerships with hospitals, rehab centres &schools across North America) that even in this wired world, makes it one-of-a –kind in its approach.
Younger members are treated as if they were “typical” kids, with hopes wishes and desires and who want to choose what to wear, to play games and sports and to live on their own some day. Through monitored message forums, chat facilities and skill-focused programs, in their own special section of the site, teens and tweens have many opportunities for:
• Social skills development
• Cognitive retraining
• Increased independence, confidence and self-esteem
• Empowerment, mastery and control
• Computer literacy development
• Creative expression
• Self-exploration and self-actualization
• Peer mentorship
• Mutual respect and support
Currently, Ability Online offers several programs that contribute to the transition from tweens to teens and beyond. The Ask Anything Homework Guide is designed to assist grade 4-12 students with all kinds of disabilities or chronic illnesses in improving academic performance, and more importantly, providing them with the confidence to ask for help, to get the help they need, and to be motivated by their progress to finish school and consider vocational opportunities.
The Friendship Builder module (social thinking/social skills development for students with Autism and other social communication challenges) and the Bully Bouncer Program is designed to enhance inclusion – in the classroom, with peers, and ultimately in the community. These skills (social thinking, communication, conflict resolution and confidence) are critical for successful transition into adulthood.
Volunteer Ability Online role models and mentors undergo rigorous police checks and include musicians, athletes, and high school students. By chatting about their areas of expertise and in sharing their own experiences with stardom, setbacks and even study habits, younger members find inspiration and hope.
We help our kids accomplish things by giving them the skills, information and confidence they need to turn their dreams into reality. Self-esteem and empowerment soar. I have seen the incredible impact our programs have on the kids and families who come to our site looking for friendship and support and leave with so much more.
Families benefit from disability and chronic illness discussion forums and online discussions about sports and recreation, transitional issues, activities for independence (e.g. cooking, self-advocacy), camp experiences and resources in their own section of the site. Online office hours are available 24/7, which means parents can access the site at any time. As one parent said, “It is easier to type through the tears than to talk through them.”
The community partnerships we have enable us to collaborate and provide relevant content for our youth members, as well as their parents and the professionals working with them. One such partnership is with SNOWand the Inclusive Design Research Centre. We now have forums for both the youth and the professionals on “Adaptive Technology in the Classroom”, enabling our members not only to learn about new developments but also to be able to ask an OT from the Centre questions about their current or future technology requirements. This information is available to all our members from Canada and the United States, from rural communities to large urban centres. Membership is free and we welcome youth of all abilities to join us for information sharing and skill development.
Published September 2011