People with disabilities (PWDs) can face barriers to using digital media, while at the same time digital devices can increase their social participation, social capital, and feeling of belonging when connecting with other individuals on social platforms. Previous studies found that PWDs experience social isolation, rejection, and can struggle with establishing friendships with able-bodied individuals. They are also less likely to take part in recreational activities.
PWDs can suffer from stigma by coming out as disabled, therefore they might sometimes be reluctant to publicly share their disability in the fear of experiencing harassment and bullying. In the case of dating, disability can come off as a turn-off for potential partners, leading to some PWDs hiding their disability at first when meeting new individuals online.
This study focuses on the role of digital media in how people with disabilities “negotiate the perceived difference or stigma of disability within varied mixed social relations and social contexts.”
The research gathered four females and seven males between the ages of 14 and 19 years old. All but one participant used a wheelchair and had a range of impairments affecting their mobility, appearance, communication, cognition, and behavior. The majority of them were able to use digital media without the help of assistive technologies. The themes studied included the influence of visual profiles on social exclusion in social media platforms, as well as the resort to digital media when encountering hostile offline environments. The study proceeded to expose six cases that illustrate diversity in gender, disability, and experience of digital media.
Results show that differences in experiences for young PWDs were related to intra-disability and intersectional differences, and were also shaped by social context such as schools (school for PWDs versus mainstream college). The research also found that digital media does help PWDs in forming or maintaining relationships, but despite that, the majority of PWDs remain socially isolated in school settings. In the dating scene, digital media does offer the opportunity for PWDs to choose to reveal their disability only once a personal relationship has already been established. Messaging apps have also been found to help PWDs to talk with their friends online when finding themselves in a hostile or unwelcoming offline school environment. The study also notes that PWDs are sometimes treated and studied as a homogeneous group, while their experiences can be highly different from one another.
To conclude, digital media “rarely alter but often augment, ameliorate or reinforce existing areas and instances of young PWDs’ social exclusion and inclusion.”
Kaur, Herminder, and Paula Saukko. “Social Access: Role of Digital Media in Social Relations of Young People with Disabilities.” New Media & Society, vol. 24, no. 2, Feb. 2022, pp. 420–436, doi:10.1177/14614448211063177.