Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Social media taking off in the disability community

From The Star News in Wilmington, N.C.:

Social media is developing into more than a pastime for the elderly and disabled. If implemented properly, it could become their social lifeline.

For some residents at Davis Health Care Center and Champions Assisted Living in Porters Neck, this is already the case.

Davis recently installed computer stations equipped with Skype, a free software that allows users to “call” and see anyone around the world using a Web cam.

Twenty-three people of varying abilities at both Davis and the adjacent Champions Assisted Living have full access to computers. Staff hope to improve this figure through the installation of wireless Internet in all rooms when they remodel the facility later this year.

One resident, Vel Evans, 90, uses this system to speak with her daughter Deb Evans as often as they can. Deb, who Skyped her mom from her home in Texas last week, called the program “reliable” and said, “Skype is fantastic for when my husband and I are teaching in China.”

Not everyone at Davis has the capabilities to use a standard system, but that hardly stops them from accessing the information superhighway.

Sixty-nine-year-old Edsel Odom (pictured) suffered two simultaneous strokes on May 2, 2003. He now uses a wheelchair and clicks a mouse with his single functioning thumb. To type, he uses an infrared device mounted on a baseball cap.

Odom uses all types of social media, including Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, and blogs.

“Of all the tools available, I enjoy MySpace the most. You really get a chance to know people there as opposed to the glimpse you get from looking at Facebook,” he said.

Social media is about more than just family and friends for Odom.

“I want to share my message with the world!” he said.

Others, like Laura Still, a 49-year-old Davis resident, just want to have fun.

Still was involved in a serious car accident 16 years ago that left her with brain damage.

Within the past five years, her true technological abilities have surfaced. She uses a fully functioning Macintosh computer set up in her room to play games, draft e-mail and listen to her favorite tunes.

Her message to others with disabilities is, “Never give up!”

As more and more people with disabilities enter the social media arena, disability resources and organizations are having to stay one step ahead.

For example, information from the Web site Disability.Gov, which provides resources on topics such as traveling with a disability or how to apply for benefits, can now be found on Facebook as well as Twitter.

Bethaney Ferguson, a sociology instructor at Cape Fear Community College, emphasized the importance of awareness about these tools. Now more than ever as society transitions into the post-industrial technology era, people must find ways to remain connected, she said.

“Social media provides isolated individuals of any age group with a socializing outlet. It is not uncommon for the elderly in our society to feel as if they have lost their social voice, and the use of social media restores this voice, oftentimes from the comfort of one's home. The value in maintaining this voice for the elderly individual is undeniable.” Ferguson said.

A person's age and work status might be barriers to that technology, a UNCW professor said.

Eleanor Covan, professor of gerontology and sociology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said people become used to the technology with which they grow up.

“Once people leave the workforce, they tend not to learn new elements of technology, and that is one reason why the oldest old are not likely to be on Facebook,” Covan said.

“This is the population that prefers reading a newspaper, rather than an electronic news report, no matter who authored the article,” she said.

At Davis Health Care Center, Vel Evans and Edsel Odom are among the exceptions, joining the 38 percent of those 65 and older who use the Web, according to 2009 Internet trend data from the Pew Research Center.