How can technology help students with disabilities in their social development?

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Online mentoring can help students with disabilities with their social development and goals in education and careers. Some youth with disabilities are not accepted by their peers and experience isolation as a result. They have few friends or little contact with other students with disabilities and thus have limited access to positive role models with disabilities. Support systems employed in high school are no longer available after graduation, and many students with disabilities lack the self-determination, self-advocacy, college and employment preparation, and independent living skills necessary to make successful transitions to adulthood. Youth with disabilities continue to live with their parents or in other dependent living situations after high school more often than their peers without disabilities; they also engage in fewer social activities. The effect of social isolation can be far-reaching, affecting not only personal well-being but also academic success.

Both mentor and peer support have the potential to provide students with disabilities psychosocial, academic, and career support, thereby lessening or eliminating some of the unique challenges they face. However, these types of relationships can be limited by physical distance, time, schedule constraints, and disability-related communication barriers (e.g., speech impairment, deafness). Computer-mediated communication (CMC), in which people use computers and networks to communicate with one another, makes communication across great distances and different time zones convenient, eliminating the time and geographic constraints of in-person communication. Lack of social cues and social distinctions like gender, age, disability, race, and physical appearance in CMC can make even shy users feel more confident.

With the development of computers and adaptive technology, electronic communication allows participation by all individuals, regardless of disability. For example, a blind person can read text on a computer screen by using speech output; an individual with limited use of his hands can use a trackball, a headstick, voice input, or an alternative keyboard to control the computer; and a person with a speech and/or hearing impairment may be able to participate more fully in communications conducted electronically. A peer support group of students with disabilities can discuss issues such as whom on campus to tell about a disability, how to communicate with professors about accommodations, how to live independently, and how to make friends. Peers can become empowered as they come to see themselves as contributors and role models.

For more information on online mentoring, consult Opening Doors: Mentoring on the Internet or view the video by the same title. Information on developing mentoring relationships can be found at Supporting Peer-Peer and Mentor-Protege Relationships on the Internet.

Last update or review: January 22, 2013