The media loves to publish scare stories about the dangers of the internet and tells us that we shouldn’t let virtual relationships replace real, flesh-and-blood ones. But for so many people online communities can be a lifeline and lead to lively friendship groups, shared interests, genuine support and new opportunities.
Kayleigh Walters and Jess Long are two of three Service User Engagement Officers employed by Livability.
Lauren Taylor lives at Livability’s Talbot Manor – a residential home for young disabled people.
Together, they tell us about how their online world builds friendships and community connections.
“I have met loads of friends online through different support groups and interest pages on Facebook, Instagram and Myspace,” says Jess. “I also have my own blog.
“Even though I have never met most of my online contacts in person, I still consider them to be an important part of my life,” explains Jess. “We talk regularly on Whatsapp or Facebook. We offer each other support and share experiences.
Jess is also an active participant of several groups that provide a forum for the parents of young children with her rare growth disorder. “I can share my journey of growing up and answer any questions they have.” Jess is also in contact with someone who has recently been disabled, who was introduced by a mutual friend. “She is someone who has only just obtained a disability and has no one to relate to. I share my experiences with her and offer guidance about all sort of things, like what steps she can take and her rights. I also provide a sounding board for her as I’m someone who understands what she’s going through.”
“One of the biggest and best things to have happened to me in my life was meeting my partner Jon,” Kayleigh says. “We met online through a mutual online friend and found that we had lots in common – from our love of music to a love of all things Doctor Who.”
After months of chatting they finally found an opportunity to meet up face to face. “I made sure I had someone with me so I was not on my own. After that first meeting, we continued to chat online and met up again a couple of times. We have now been together four years this year and have just bought our first home together.
“If it wasn’t for social media I could still be living the single life with my parents at home. Jon has definitely given me the confidence to do things I didn’t think were possible before. If someone had told me ten years ago that by the age of 27, I would own my own house and be in a relationship, I probably would have laughed at them!
Lauren has always been passionate about singing since she was young. “I did a few musical shows at school then went on to study music at college for a year. I started songwriting in between my vocal sessions and band practices.
“After college, I began producing my own songs. I wrote a song called ‘Why Did You’ about being my own experience of being disabled and being bullied at my mainstream school. I posted a video of my live performance on YouTube and the response to the post was really positive.
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“The founder of the SEEDA project, Nathan Thomas, saw my video and really liked it. SEEDA helps people with physical disabilities to express themselves through music. Nathan got in touch to ask if I would like to record a song with him to go on the SEEDA album. I was over the moon! Our song, which we co-wrote, is called ‘The Real Me’ and is now on YouTube.
Without the online community, this amazing opportunity wouldn’t have been available to Lauren. “For disabled people like me, it is difficult to get to a recording studio. Most of them are inaccessible – they have steps or are down in a basement. SEEDA brings the studio to you. It hopes to reach out to more disabled people to help them share their stories.”
“Expanding my world through online friendships is a huge thing,” says Jess. “I’ve met people that I would never have met otherwise, who I have a huge amount in common with. I’ve learned more, shared more and, I hope, helped far more people than I ever would have in person due to the restrictions of travelling.”
Kayleigh agrees, “You get to meet people from all walks of life, from all over the world. It’s good to share what you love with other people – my passion is musical theatre. I have lots of great conversations, discussions and sometimes even heated debates.”
“There’s a real pressure to look good in the photos you post because you worry that people are judging you,” says Jess. “I don’t have photos of my wheelchair or crutches on social media and I never make comments about my actual life. It does give the impression that I never have any struggles and never have bad days.
“There is a feeling that other people seem to be having a better time than you,’ Kayleigh explains. “Seeing friends getting married, having babies or going on great holidays can feel depressing and leave you thinking, ‘When is it my turn?’ I have to remind myself that what people post online is just a snapshot of what is happening in their lives at that moment and they are probably thinking the same when they see my own holiday snaps. And some posts are really inspiring – they might even encourage you to fulfil your life long aspirations!”