LASICS .::. Open Conference Systems, IAMCR 2010: Communication and Citizenship

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Blind Faith in the Web? Internet Use and Empowerment among Visually and Hearing Impaired Adults: a Qualitative Study of Benefits and Barriers

Mariek Vandenabeele, Rozane De Cock, Keith Roe

Last modified: 2010-07-14


The Internet undoubtedly offers new opportunities for visually and hearing impaired persons to participate in society (Kaye, 2000). By using the Internet they have easier access to information and new and alternative ways to interact with others (Dobransky and Hargittai, 2003). From this perspective the Internet supports their desire to live independently. Nevertheless, utopian views of how the Internet can benefit the lives of people with disabilities are countered by results from digital divide studies that show how disabled persons are significantly less likely to use computers and the Internet (Grimaldi and Goette, 1999; Kaye, 2000; Dobransky and Hargittai, 2003). Moreover, simply having access to computers and the Internet does not suffice for blind or deaf persons. Other barriers need to be overcome in order to satisfactorily participate in the digital society and may be different in relation to the specific handicap involved.
Previous research has primarily been based on quantitative methods, i.e. surveys (Grimaldi and Goettte, 1999; Kaye, 2000; Gerber and Kirchner, 2001; Miller, 2003; Dobransky and Hargittai, 2006; Karras and Cheong, 2008). To our knowledge, only two studies have investigated the attitudes and experiences of visually impaired people by using qualitative methods, i.e. focus groups and individual interviews (Williamson, Albrecht, Schauder and Bow, 2000) and focus groups only (Gerber, 2003). Qualitative research among people with a hearing disability is even more rare and is limited to teenagers (Henderson, Grinter and Starner, 2005). Therefore, our study wants to offer more insight into the complex black box that is called ‘media use and (overcoming) disabilities’ by using a qualitative method that allows us to probe into the deeper meanings of Internet use of visually and hearing impaired adults. Based on empirical evidence from in-depth interviews with 21 visual or auditory disabled informants in Flanders (Belgium), our research puts the results of two adult subgroups along side each other. A qualitative approach allows us to formulate information rich answers to our research questions that shed light on motivations and gratifications derived by our informants from Internet usage. First of all, this paper focuses on the benefits and barriers that blind and deaf individuals experience in their use of computers and the Internet by applying the uses and gratifications theory. Secondly, we draw attention to sometimes paradoxical similarities and differences between these groups concerning the benefits, barriers and empowering capacities of their internet use.
Among other things, the results show that, as far as overcoming limitations is concerned, informants experience their disability as less bothersome when they are online than in real life (personal integration, uses and gratifications theory).
Though most informants used email, instant messengers and social network sites, meeting new people online was clearly not a priority need. Overall, there was distrust towards online strangers. The visually and hearing impaired informants indicated that they benefited from the web but this does not mean they put blind faith in the social opportunities of the Internet to tear down all the barriers between the closed and safe ingroup and the world beyond.

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