‘I remember setting up my Facebook page when I was 13 years old. It was the first time I’d been able to access a platform like this just like everyone else in my school; Bebo and MySpace were inaccessible to me, MSN was doable, but a challenge. Facebook was slick, easy and exciting. Exciting because now I could join in with conversations at lunch about what so-and-so had posted last night, where before I’d been the silent observer; unable to keep up, to join in, to access what felt like the majority of my friends’ social lives.
I also remember being able to totally bamboozle my parents into thinking I was doing something complicated and technical and important by throwing a few words of jargon around like HTML and server. I could fool my them into thinking I was working on an IT project for school, or trying to fix an accessibility issue with my screen-reading software, when really I was scrolling on Twitter and chatting to friends online!
Being able to access the world online meant access to a whole new community as well; suddenly, I could read articles about blind people who were authors, teachers, doctors and actors; I could join a group of likeminded people that would answer my questions without judgment; I could chat to someone half-way across the world who I had so much in common with – I could hardly believe it. I could feel accepted. I could feel included. I could feel protected, being able to interact with my classmates from behind a screen which made it easier to talk IRL the next day at break.
I also remember being flattered when a boy I didn’t know requested me as a friend because he said I was pretty. I remember talking and talking and talking to this person, feeling like I knew them and they knew me, without realising that I didn’t know where they lived or who they really were. I remember not knowing what to do when his messages turned graphic, so I told no-one.
Online access gave me the tools for independent research. It gave me a way of socialising with people my own age. It gave me a way of finding my community of visually impaired people all over the world. It taught me the nuances of advocacy and taught me the rights I have as a disabled person. It gave me an outlet for my creativity, and for this, I am eternally grateful.
I would never be without my phone or the internet but it is only now I am a bit older that I know how important it is to keep myself safe online. At that time, I had another ‘virtual’ life that my parents did not know about and could not understand. The reality is – young people can get hurt online. Not only through unsafe relationships that start off innocently, but also comments, likes and shares that can affect all of us. I think it’s important for parents to realise how their kids are interacting through their screens and to be able to offer sound, knowledge-based advice to their kids.’
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