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Forward Slash Disability: Social experiences of disability online, in and around higher education

Sarah Lewthwaite, Learning Sciences Research Institute, University of Nottingham


This paper is based upon ongoing PhD research. It explores the social experiences of disabled students online to discover how social networking technologies challenge and perpetuate (dis)ability difference. The study is based upon in-depth qualitative interviews with disabled students from several UK universities.

For many young people, online social networks such as Facebook are an essential part of their student experience. Other social services like Wikipedia and YouTube are also an important part of everyday student life.

As these social technologies become more pervasive, universities are increasingly seeking to appropriate them for teaching. However, many social software services are not accessible. Furthermore, since disability is a social product, it is important to consider how the social elements of disability are being reproduced or transformed online. This social experience is the focus of this research.

Interviews use phenomenographic methods to directly investigate students' own experiences. In this way, interviews aim to explore the different aspects of online interaction as fully as possible. This process is aided by an internet enabled computer. Depending on participants' preferences, data collection is completed using audio, video, voice and/or screen capture.

Current findings show that disabled students experience online interaction in ways different to those described by established frameworks. Aside from computer literacy, a range of associations, including class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, political self-identification and disability determine how students represent themselves online. Disability is not always reported as the most salient factor effecting students online interactions, however disclosure of disability is a central part of student's negotiation and 'management' of identity in online social situations.

Controlled or conscious disclosure demonstrates a social understanding that can facilitate a 'socially present' experience of online environments. This has positive and negative effects. For example, such advanced social understanding can assist deep learning and creativity, with potentially beneficial educative outcomes. However, environments that rely on text-based communication have the capacity to actively disable students with print-impairments, who withdraw from participation. Furthermore, results show that numerous access barriers persist for all students. Power relations are also transmitted and re-constituted in virtual spaces, with highly contrary effects. All these factors dispute the notion of the web as a democratic, transparent and inclusive space.

Future research must ensure that the assumptions of research based solely upon the experiences of enabled student groups are challenged by disabled experience.

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