Earlier this year, the Atlantic’s Stephen Marche wrote a much-buzzed-about essay called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”
His answer to the titular question was a resounding yes: “In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society,” he wrote. “We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.”
But for people living with physical disabilities, traditional modes of socializing can be difficult due to accessibility issues and physical limitations—and online social networks combined with assistive technology can serve as lifelines that reduce isolation, build community, and promote engagement.
Schweitzer Fellow Dana Aravich, an occupational therapy student at Boston University’s Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitative Sciences, is working to build community through a peer-based technology and social networking program at the Boston Home (a care and living facility for adults with physical disabilities, primarily multiple sclerosis and other progressive neurological diseases).
ASF: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
DA: Initially, it was my own experience with isolation that inspired my project. I am unable to drive due to a disability, which made growing up in a rural area very difficult. I moved away from family and friends to an area with accessible public transportation.
The residents of the Boston Home have also moved away from their loved ones to live in an accessible environment. Their ability to visit family and friends is compromised by fatigue, severe physical limitations, inaccessible public transportation, and limited income.
But thanks to social networks like Facebook coupled with assistive technology, these barriers no longer need to prevent social involvement. As a Schweitzer Fellow, I wanted to teach the Boston Home residents to use virtual media to overcome barriers to community involvement.
The Computer Trainers Program (CTP), my Schweitzer project, was initially based on my personal experience, but it has turned into something so much larger. I am not the leader, but a member of a group of interesting and caring individuals who share the belief that a disability should not limit one’s participation in life. I had always planned to incorporate the residents’ feedback into the development of the CTP, but I did not expect to make personal connections so quickly. I am lucky to work with motivated and curious individuals. They inspire me, continue to make the project meaningful, and foster my desire to find creative solutions.
ASF: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
DA: The CTP’s goal is to support individuals in creating, reestablishing, and sustaining meaningful personal roles, and to provide opportunities for increased social interaction both on and off the web. It is an inherently sustainable program, because it focuses on empowering the residents themselves and giving them the necessary leadership skills to continue on indefinitely.
During the weekly CTP meetings, residents refine their technological skills and learn teaching techniques. Targeting broader teaching skills rather than specific computer skills is especially important because technology continuously changes. Once residents-in-training learn these initial skills, they become the trainers—who then mentor other residents and introduce them to various computer programs.
Peer-based programs like the CTP have so many benefits, including providing roles and opportunities to learn from others with lived experience. The format involves both group support and one-to-one relationships. Residents also choose the focus of the weekly meetings, which helps to ensure that the program will remain as long as there is a need and interest for it.
ASF: What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
DA: As an occupational therapist, I believe that every person has the right to engage in meaningful activities in his or her environment. Unfortunately, so many individuals with disabilities in America still face discrimination and lack of equal access to transportation, affordable housing, and competitive work.
I believe that successful solutions to any health-related issue should take a holistic approach. This may mean addressing the individual’s personal factors, intervening at the activity level, and considering environmental factors. When addressing these needs, communities should consider building housing with universal design, demand that elected officials fight for public transportation, and create inclusive work places.
ASF: What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?
DA: During the development of my Schweitzer project, I conducted interviews with residents of the Boston Home. I asked residents to share a defining moment in their lives. I initially assumed that many of them would mention their experience with multiple sclerosis, since it has such pervasive effects on daily functioning.
Instead, the majority of residents responded with answers related to family—such as getting married, having children, and moving away from loved ones. Although this response aligned with the goal of the CTP, I still did not expect it. When reflecting upon this experience, I realized that I, too, would never mention having a “disability” as a defining moment in my own life.
I was ashamed of my initial assumptions, but I am thankful that this moment occurred at the beginning of the CTP. It reminded me that each person’s experiences are unique, and that it is important for me to be cognizant of those individual factors.
ASF: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately a Schweitzer Fellow for Life) mean to you?
DA: Being a Schweitzer Fellow is an honor because I work alongside other Fellows devoted to making positive changes in their communities. These Fellows are providing individuals without homes with proper foot care, inspiring young women to pursue careers in health care, and increasing access to primary health services for individuals who have recently returned home from prison.
Being a Fellow also means that I have the privilege of teaching a group of individuals how to mentor others, while they simultaneously teach me how to be a better clinician and person.
Most importantly, being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life means that these opportunities will only evolve as I apply the lessons I learn from this year to future communities.
Click here to learn more about the Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program and our work to develop leaders, create change, and improve health in vulnerable communities. We are supported entirely by charitable donations and grants.