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Poll: Disabled Don't Use Internet

Costs, challenges may be factors

FRIDAY, Jan. 25, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Technology is typically a blessing for the disabled, but new devices that make it even easier to use computers haven't yet convinced more disabled people to try the Internet.

That's what a recent survey from the National Organization on Disability found. Just 38 percent of disabled American adults said they used the Internet, compared to 56 percent of non-disabled adults.

The findings are consistent with other studies, says Stephen Kaye, a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco who studies how the disabled use technology. Unfortunately, the numbers mean many disabled people are missing the joys that computers can bring to their lives, he says.

"People with disabilities are often isolated, and the Internet has a great potential of allowing them to participate in society a lot more," he explains.

However, there are stumbling blocks: New software and hardware can help the disabled use the computer even if they can't see or type, but both can be costly and hard to install, experts explain.

The Harris poll surveyed 2,024 people, and has a margin of error of 3 percent. Those considered disabled had either long-lasting cases of vision or hearing impairment; a condition that limited basic physical activities; or a physical, mental or emotional condition that made it hard to learn, remember or concentrate. The actual number of disabled people in the poll was not available.

People with visual or hearing impairments were mostly likely to use the Internet at home; 43 percent reported doing so. Only 35 percent of people with mobility and movement difficulties said they used the Internet.

The numbers surprise Mark Harmon, a 51-year-old father of two small children who plans to start an online bookkeeping business. Harmon, who lives in Maine, has been paralyzed below his shoulders for 27 years after breaking his neck in a motorcycle accident.

He uses voice-command software to use his computer and access the Internet.

"It does so much, and helps me overcome so many things," he says. "Getting a book down and turning pages are hard; being able to do things online is incredible."

Harmon speculates costs could keep many disabled people away from computer technology, and Kaye agrees money might be a factor.

"Not that many people with disabilities have jobs," he says. "A lot of them get by on benefit programs that don't make them wealthy enough to afford a computer."

There are other challenges, too. On one hand, computer technology is so advanced that blind people can listen to computers talk to them or read Braille displays, and software can isolate words to remove distractions for dyslexics, Kaye says.

However, the disabled often can't install special software and hardware on their own.

"If you don't have someone to install it for you, you might be stuck," he says. "There are extra expenses and extra knowledge required."

Ideally, Kaye says, schools will offer more computer training and support for the disabled. Better education will allow many disabled people to telecommute and communicate with others.

"What better way to increase employment of people with disabilities than give them access to computer technology and the Internet?" he asks.

What To Do

Are you curious about how many disabled people live in your city? Ever wonder how many disabled people there are in the United States? Those numbers and many more are at the University of California at San Francisco's Disability Statistics Center.

Learn about technology for the disabled from the federally funded Family Center on Technology and Disability.

SOURCES: Interviews with Stephen Kaye, Ph.D., research director, Disability Statistics Center, University of California at San Francisco; Mark Harmon, Westbrook, Maine; May/June 2001 Harris poll
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