The internet as a lifeline.

A friend and I have recently been discussing the importance of the internet in our lives growing up. We are both physically disabled and suffer from mental health problems, our lives and ability to socialise face-to-face have been severely affected as a result. Both of us have been housebound from time to time, unable to leave due to our afflictions. It got me thinking about just how important the web is for many in our situations, and the lifeline it can offer.

I missed out on the social experiences of school; I didn’t go round friends houses, I didn’t have the opportunity to rebel against teachers, I didn’t sit and chat with my peers in the cafeteria at lunch. In a way I was completely isolated from an entire section of my life, or at least a section that everyone else seemed to have had. Even the structure and routine in school baffles me, I’m not sure I’d ever be able to work in that environment, concentrate on work in the way you’re taught to as an adolescent.

The web has been a blessing , it’s allowed me to move and socialise beyond my homes without having to go anywhere, speak to anyone, and suffer any anxiety or physical hardship that comes with going out. It’s a side of the web that is often overlooked.

Firstly, you come in as an equal online. You can explore, you can speak to people, you’re just like everyone else. It doesn’t matter if you’re unable to walk, it doesn’t matter if you twitch from time to time, if you’re crying for no reason or can’t move for pain. You don’t get funny looks for having an obvious ailment or for being in a wheelchair. You don’t have people staring to try and spot what’s wrong with you if it’s not somthing obvious. You are just like everyone else.

You obviously have the option to bring up your disability if you wish, but with your online self it’s only there if you choose to inform people about it. If you’re anxious about sharing that particular part of you, you simply have to omit it. It’s not always an obstacle like it can be away from the screen. For so many of us, our disability can be seen and eventually human curiosity takes over leading to probing questions that we would prefer not to answer, I completely understand why some choose not to disclose it on here for this reason. Even if it does come up most people will tend to overlook it, whereas it becomes a topic of conversation nearly every time when you meet new people at say, the local cafe.

You can join clubs, forums, and communities of individuals who are also going through the same struggles and understand you situation, find people you can be open with, joke with, get frustrated with, without going through the anxieties you may do within a wider social group. You can have a conversation without finding yourself squirming with self-consciousness, anxiety, and embarrassment, as a lot of the time I find myself doing, or trying very hard not to do.

“I couldn’t leave the house much when I was younger. If I did I always had to be supervised by my Father who was my full time carer back then. When you are stuck at home all the time you don’t get the playful chatting, sharing of secrets or arguing with friends that you might do if you weren’t sick. I used to get funny looks from other kids my age, people wanted to know what was wrong, some were frightened and a lot just thought I was weird.”

Platforms like social networks, IRC and forums can be an amazing substitute for this if you feel like you’re missing out as you’re growing up, or even as an adult. You can find support groups where you can discuss the issues that are appearing in your life, you can have conversations with people you may be unable to interact with otherwise. You can make friends and even have that playful conversation with quips, sarcasm and jokes, just as you would offline. You can become a part of a community even if you’re unable to leave home.

“IRC was awesome as a kid. My Uncle put it on my computer and told me to just start talking to people. I went on and just started chatting to whole groups of people all over the world. Chatting about things like films and music, I learned about bollywood and religion, laughing at jokes, making fun of people when they do stupid things like you see friends doing all the time. I could be the person I felt like I was instead of ‘that kid in the wheelchair’. I made a lot of good friends who I still talk to on places like facebook and I have met a lot of them in real life too. I know what is happening in their lives and their personalities and they know mine. I have got a lot of benefit from having the relationships with them. I don’t feel like I have missed out as much as I would have without it”.

This is something I can’t agree with more. Without the web growing up I would have had very little interaction with the outside world, an incredibly narrow view of what it’s really like out there. The only people I really had the chance to converse and spend time with were my immediate family and a close family friend. You can only learn so much, in general and about how to communicate, if you only have a very small group of individuals to pick things up from.

There’s also so much I simply wouldn’t know as I used the web to research subjects which took my interest in order to fill my time, as well as the gaps in my education. At the age of 11 I was withdrawn from school for a year after a disagreement with the school leaving me excluded, Upon returning the next year, back in year 7, I was unable to attend after half a term (I think) as I simply couldn’t manage it anymore. I was given home tuition for an hour a day in order to work towards GCSEs inmathematics, English, science, art, and history, but there were still a number of times I was unable to take part in those lessons due to having bad days.

I commend my tutor for what she tried to teach me in the time allotted, and particularly for nurturing my fascination with modern history which I have since explored in depth, but sadly it did leave a lot of gaps. It’s hard to get a comprehensive education in so little time. I would spend a lot of time in front of a computer, researching bits and pieces of subjects on my own and finding my interests. This wasn’t structured, structure is something I’ve always struggled with as it’s not something I’ve experienced much with learning. It’s led to frequent subject hopping and interesting changing, too. With so much information available and so much I wanted to learn, the more I looked different subjects, one after another. Combined with that lack of structure, it’s made it very hard to pin down any interest in particular that I want to stick with. It may have brought these difficulties but it has provided me with an education in a wide range of subject that I would likely not have otherwise.

At the age of 15 my home tuition ceased as I was moved out of the area, from the South East to the West Country. The politics surrounding home tuition are immensely difficult and I made the decision not to fight, at the time not understanding the importance of qualifications or structured learning. I continued to move through the web, I learned about IT, pharmacology, history – just about everything that took my interest. Back then there was no Wikipedia and news sites were rather sparce compared to now, but you could always find some articles to read eventually or someone to talk to who’s well versed in the subject. I’ve many people to thank for talking to me and allowing me to pick their brains for a few hours at a time. I largely have chat networks like IRC to thank for my English skills, having spent so much time conversing with people, picking up on spelling, grammar, and context.

To many I’ve spoken to about this, the idea of “growing up online” and not really having much face-to-face contact with other individuals. The average person I talk to about it seems to think it’s a terrifying thought. For me and others in similar situations it’s exactly what’s happened. To me it feels quite normal, my life is still playing out online in a way because ultimately it’s what I know. I also realise that, no matter how strange or ‘terrifying’ the notion is, the alternative is worse.

Imagine being 14 years old again. You cannot go to school, you can barely move around the house, social experiences like sports are automatically counted out. After a while anxiety can take over. If you haven’t really socialised in a long time or travelled anywhere, the idea of suddenly doing that can be nauseating – I still struggle with it a great deal today and I’m sure many who are reading this can relate. Although the communication over the internet does provide some relief to issues like anxieties, with places like twitter being an amazing support system (as I’ve learned lately), it doesn’t overcome many of the emotional issues that can arise off-screen. So how bad could it be without the web?

Now imagine being in the above situation and having no one to talk to, no support group outside of family, no communication, little idea of what’s going on outside the abode you’re sat in. By not going to school you have lost your main arena for social contact as a child. Aside from a place of learning, it’s a place where most people grow as a person, where you learn a lot about discipline, about the world around you. It’s where you find a lot about your identity; you figure out what your opinions are and begin to find your place in that world. You can get some semblance of all of this by interacting online, imagine what it must be like without it.

For those who could have gone through that hypothetical situation, who could have been unable to really participate fully in the society surrounding them, I can’t find the words to tell you just how important the web can be but I do hope this gives you some idea.

Reworked/reworded from something I wrote on this a while ago.