As one of the first users of Prodigy and America Online (AOL), I was a pioneer on the Internet. In the early 1990s, I was writing e-mails to my friends, participating in chat rooms and instant messaging conversations, browsing the World Wide Web, and downloading all kinds of cool stuff in the comfort of my own living room.
Moreover, the timing couldn’t have been better, because I had just undergone surgery to correct scoliosis (brought on by my spinal muscular atrophy).
As influential as the Internet has already been to me and to millions of people with and without disabilities, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Here’s my sneak peak of what to expect over the next decade.
As people have seen with the popularity of Web sites such as MySpace or Friendster, the power of online “social networks” is tremendous. Instead of communicating through forums and chats, people now want to create their own online presence, build intricate online networks, share photos, videos, blogs and other creative content, and then publish and promote this content.
People also want to conduct commerce, initiate social or political movements, and promote education through these networks. Online social networks are coming to life at an exponential rate with infinite (and unknown) potential.
These networks in the next few years also will start to incorporate 3-D technology and real-time video conferencing to further enrich the online interaction between people.
The potential impact of social networking on the disability community is obvious and epic. Never in the history of mankind has it been easier for people with disabilities to be able to integrate and interact with others in real time and in a common space.
However, very few social networks currently exist for the disability community, especially “all-inclusive” networks that cross multiple disabilities and leverage the latest in Internet technology. So, in early 2007 I launched a beta version of a very advanced social networking site.
The site is specifically designed to empower and connect people with disabilities by uniting them into a single, global online network with features such as personal spaces, media sharing, clubs, blogs, forums, classifieds, auctions, real estate postings and job postings (some of these functions will be available in mid to late 2007). Many more social networks designed for the disability community will surely emerge over the years, further empowering our ability to connect for social, commercial and other purposes.
It’s exciting to know that over the next couple of years I’ll be able instantly to find, connect to and interact with people who share my disability, as well as to learn about their experiences and share my own interactively.
|Photo illustration by Libby Rogers/MDA|
The power of knowledge and information is one of the foundations of the Internet. You can already browse libraries of digital books and get information on just about anything with only a couple of clicks and keystrokes.
However, countless people with disabilities have given up on their dreams of attending their favorite colleges, because they knew it would be a logistical mess and tremendous expense. The usual outcome is settling for a local community college or university, commuting each day to the campus, and living at home.
Very soon people will be able to live at home and earn a degree from the institution of their choice. Completely simulating the campus experience might be another 25 to 50 years away, but classroom simulation is already happening and rapidly becoming more virtual and interactive.
Universities see the benefit of removing the physical limitations of a small classroom and offering their world-class instructors to an infinite student population because it’ll help them achieve an important objective: more tuition revenue. However, they’re also enabling an entire segment of the population to participate in education and leveling the playing field for millions of people with disabilities.
How would you like to start a new and exciting career or jump start an existing one? With the Internet of the future, your disability won’t matter as much as it might today. Telecommuting will become more prevalent, virtual meetings with high-quality video conferencing will be commonplace, and filing cabinets with mountains of paper will become things of the past.
This transition to a more digital workplace has been slowly taking place over the last 30 years, but it’s now rapidly advancing as the Internet starts to empower small businesses as well as large enterprises. Small businesses, which employ a large part of the work force, are now able to more affordably integrate “connected” technology and hire employees with disabilities. This wasn’t the case five to 10 years ago.
Small businesses, too, can now maintain virtual offices of geographically dispersed employees connecting solely via the Internet. You can apply and interview for, accept and start a job, all online, without ever having to meet your new employer face-to-face.
Online workplaces will only become more popular as video and 3-D capabilities continue to improve. The Internet is truly opening doors for millions to be able to enjoy fulfilling careers, support their families and contribute to society despite any disabilities they might have.
Quality of life and health
With evolving Internet technology, people with disabilities will be able to do things they never could before.
For instance, what if you were home alone and fell out of your wheelchair? How would you get help? Or what if you started to have a seizure and needed immediate medical assistance?
Well, an intelligent wristwatch (that is, an Internet-connected minicomputer) could notify the authorities immediately after it detected physiological changes indicating an emergency. You wouldn’t have to pick up a phone or yell to get help, which most severely disabled people couldn’t do anyway.
Imagine being able to wear a pair of sunglasses that’s also a voice-controlled digital camera. You could take pictures and/or video with voice commands and then beam the content directly over the Internet to your computer at home. There’d no longer be a need to carry around a hefty camera to capture those special moments.
What about something as simple as shopping? Wouldn’t it be nice to pay for your purchases without having to fiddle with your wallet, take out a credit card or cash, and then sign those checkout machines you can’t even reach?
Payment systems are being developed and tested that will automatically authenticate your identity via a biometric scan (i.e., thumbprint or retinal scan), instantly detect every item in your shopping bag (each will have a radio frequency transmitter), charge your preferred bank account or credit card automatically, and then update your household inventory list.
Cell phones will continue to get smaller and become more “connected,” as the new Apple iPhone already demonstrates. We’ll have instant access to our friends, family, community and world with the swipe of a finger or spoken voice command. Billions of ultraportable, network-aware devices communicating over the backbone of this new Internet will enable a “hyperconnected” future full of digital possibilities.
It won’t be about your physical ability anymore, but about your digital ability.
What’s the downside?
Will our privacy be compromised? To an unknown degree, yes.
Are these technological advances going to benefit people with disabilities? Undoubtedly, yes.
Striking the balance between privacy and making life better and easier will be difficult, though, as people with disabilities embrace the empowering effects of the future Internet while simultaneously surrendering privacy to corporations, government entities and the online world at large. However, we can hope technological advances in the security and privacy arena will provide a counterbalance.
The “brave new world” brought on by this “brave new Internet” is going to happen whether we like it or not. People with disabilities will probably benefit the most.
Elio Navarro, 27, of Tampa, Fla., is a professional software developer who owns several Internet-based businesses. A member of MDA’s National Task Force on Public Awareness, he’s also a member of the U.S. National Power Soccer Team, which will compete in the first-ever Power Soccer World Cup in Japan in October.