Social Networking and Disability

My body may be confined mostly to one point in physical space, but my mind looks forward to its weekends in cyberspace

Michael P. Murphy, the author
Article Highlights:
  • Science fiction writer Michael Murphy, who has spinal muscular atrophy, uses social networks like Facebook to overcome feelings of isolation, stay connected and gloat a little.
by Michael P. Murphy on March 31, 2011 - 11:45am

QUEST Vol. 18, No. 2

When I graduated from high school in 1984, there were no tearful farewells to friends and girlfriends while a New Wave soundtrack played in the background like some John Hughes movie.

Frankly, I was relieved to be free to start my writing career, and hopefully be heralded as the next William Gibson. When my science fiction failed to sell, I switched to writing thrillers and, consequently, hoped to be called the next Frederick Forsyth. I’ve been so busy trying to break into the literary (or pulp) world that I’ve never spent much time poring over scrapbooks.

Now that I’m in my 40s, and finding it increasingly difficult to relate to everything from popular music to slang, I wonder whatever happened to the people with whom I’d swap cassettes (that’s how we listened to music in the pre-download days), trade comic books, gripe about school, and gather at my house for weekend-long Dungeons & Dragons sessions.

Like many with disabilities, travel is pretty much impossible for me, so I’ve never attended any class reunions. However, I’ve been able to overcome feelings of isolation through the use of modern technology. In this case, I’m talking about social networking.

Facebook revelations

A couple of years ago, a girl I knew in high school Googled my name and tracked me down after reading one of my articles in Quest. We exchanged a few emails, caught up on what we’d been doing for the last two decades, and then she began trying to talk me into joining her on Facebook.

I was reluctant at first because, from everything I’d heard in the media, I thought only two types of people used Facebook: middle-aged perverts cruising the Internet and teenage girls giggling about effeminate vampires. Still, I figured that if nothing else, Facebook might be a good way to plug my writing, so I signed up and created my own page.

It turned out to be like activating a time machine, because not only was I able to contact friends from high school, but also people whom I haven’t seen since grade school. What’s even more surprising is that most of them remembered me!

Of course I notice the effects of age in myself — more and more forehead every year, threads of gray in the beard, and naps sneaking up on me unexpectedly — but in my mind, people from my past have remained in the past. Seeing so many of them with the same sort of hairline challenges, and maybe some extra ballast amidships, proved to be a shock in a couple of different ways.

First of all, it was just fun to see what became of people I knew early in life, as we waited to take our place in the adult world. Most of them now have families of their own, some with children the same age that we were when we first met. I used to brag about becoming a writer, and my best friend was determined to be a police officer. We both stuck to our guns and achieved our goals, while other classmates went off in completely unexpected directions.

Secondly … I could really get into trouble for this, but here goes: Many of my old friends have things in their lives that I know are forever beyond my reach — steady work, families, travel, etc. At the same time though, it sounds as if the only activities they ever engage in are work, doctor appointments, church and the occasional ballgame.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these things — but they’re just not my cup of tea. At this point in time, I’m still free to work at my own pace, stay up as late as I want, watch whatever movies I want without having to worry about the kiddies, and there’s no wife nagging me to quit wasting money on comic books, DVDs, action figures and other essentials.

In short, my Facebook friends have taught me that maybe, just maybe, there might be some advantages to being disabled, after all!

Hitting the ‘neighborhood bar’

Facebook isn’t my first experience with social networking. I first discovered this form of online community when I entered the words “science fiction clubs” into a search engine. The first sites I visited were Trekspace, a social network for “Star Trek” fans, and Fan Central, for fans of science fiction in general.

Since I haven’t been able to attend a science fiction convention in almost 13 years, these networks have been like an air hose extended to a drowning man. Think I’m exaggerating? Try going most of your life surrounded by no one who shares your interests, so you keep them to yourself for fear of being ridiculed or, even worse, boring other people.

Meeting people who “speak your language” is fairly easy for the able-bodied, but for me, it’s something rare that must be savored. There are many subgroups on these networks, so not only are we all science fiction fans, but I’ve also been able to make contact with fellow writers, screenwriters, history buffs, Midwesterners, diabetics, libertarians, agnostics and punk rock fans. Some of my online friends live as close as Milwaukee, others as far away as China, but our shared passions make distances irrelevant.

The one drawback to social networking is its addictiveness. When communicating about what you enjoy most in life is only a few keystrokes away, it can be easy for things like work to be pushed to the back burner. This is why I try — but don’t always succeed — to limit my networking to the weekends. As much as I love writing, it’s a job like any other, and requires some sort of diversion to keep me from burning out.

Going online every Friday night to see what my friends, new and old, have been blogging about is my version of hitting the neighborhood bar. My body may be confined mostly to one point in physical space, but my mind looks forward to its weekends in cyberspace.

Hardcore Trekkies should visit Trekspace to meet some of the nicest carbon-based lifeforms in the galaxy. Best of all, you’ll never hear anyone tell you, “Get a life!” If your taste in science fiction runs to more than just “Star Trek,” then give fancentral.us a try. Here, you can discuss the works of giants like Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke; TV shows like “Doctor Who,” “Babylon 5,” and “Firefly”; classic horror movies; comic books; and more.

Hope to see you there!

Michael P. Murphy, 44, has spinal muscular atrophy and lives in Oconomowoc, Wis. A frequent Quest contributor, he’s the author of two science fiction novels, To Rule in Hell and Data Streets, and a mystery/thriller, Innocence Kills. His novels may be ordered from the publisher at www.authorhouse.com, through Amazon.com or at local bookstores. Murphy welcomes feedback at: mmurphy6158@sbcglobal.net.

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