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Ability Online: A Website That Makes a Difference

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From instant information-sharing to resources and relationships, the internet offers users a world of experiences and possibilities. Unfortunately, not all of what is presented is in the best interest of children. This can make parents' jobs of safeguarding their kids against dangerous sites and sexual predators all the more difficult — particularly parents of children with cognitive challenges, who may have more difficulty with the concept of boundaries. Enter Ability Online, a free web-based skill and development network for exceptional youth that is not only monitored around the clock, but one that many parents may actually want to encourage their children to join.

Managing director Elizabeth O'Neil describes Ability Online as "a protected online community where children and teenagers with special health challenges can develop personal connections with people who can make a meaningful difference in their lives." Founded in 1991 by child psychologist Dr. Arlette Lefebvre of Toronto (known as Dr. Froggie by her young patients), the site aims to encourage youth with disabilities to interact on an equal playing field, in an empowering, non-judgmental environment. With its limited advertising budget, members are typically referred to the site by therapists or social workers. But forming partnerships with over one hundred acute-care and pediatric hospitals as well as rehabilitation centres across Canada, Ability Online enables youth to seek peer support not only while undergoing treatment in an institutional setting, but once they return home too.

Fifteen years after incorporation, Ability Online continues to offer emotional support and skill development within a monitored environment to 3,330 exceptional young members ages 11-24 who have physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities, or chronic illnesses. "What differentiates Ability Online from other websites is that ours is so comprehensive," says O'Neil. "We help our members develop the emotional, social and communication skills required to better integrate into their own communities, whether that means greater engagement in school through our Homework Guide program or special job-search coaching through our Job Readiness program or simply by providing the comfort that comes from knowing someone else out there is going through similar challenges."

Ability Online has a dedicated staff of volunteer hosts and hostesses who monitor all discussions forums. They help to ensure that content is appropriate and strive to uphold the values of kindness and support that comprise the organization's foundation. While participants are not required to disclose their disabilities or illnesses when registering, all new members must provide their real names, birth dates, and mailing addresses. According to O'Neil, "We ask for (this information) because we are dealing with a fairly vulnerable population and simply cannot jeopardize their safety and security. We verify member identity as a safety precaution. If a member is under 18, we also request approval from a parent or guardian. We then manually verify the information provided and subsequently mail out a unique access code to the prospective member. When the member receives the code, he or she is able to log on to Ability Online to gain access to our programs." Special care is also accorded to ensure that adolescents' privacy is respected through a teen-only area. According to O'Neil, this is done to provide adolescents a space to be themselves and "open up in a monitored environment where parents aren't reading their messages."

Besides Ability Online's Core Program where members can participate in topical discussion threads and utilize chat facilities to cultivate online friendships, the website also offers games and activities designed to deemphasize participants' disabilities and foster inclusion. Ability Online is so inclusive, in fact, that O'Neil notes that occasionally "kids join (our site) who have not been diagnosed with a disability or illness, per se, but they just have trouble fitting in and making friends. Our nurturing and supportive environment is a great benefit to these kids who may not otherwise have the chance to feel a sense of belonging."

Ability Online's other services include an Ask Anything Homework Guide to help school-age members succeed in school by connecting them to volunteer e-tutors who may answer their online questions on such subjects as science, math and English. Members also have access to worksheets commonly used in special ed classrooms, study tips and other related materials. Additionally, a Job Readiness program offers a simplified and guided journey through the job-search process, with the aim of facilitating the transition from youth to adulthood. Job Readiness also offers self-assessment worksheets which enable members to home in on potential career options and "career chats" with corporate volunteers from around the country with elaborate upon their professions. Finally, 14 human resource professionals provide confidential expert advice to members seeking employment and even assist them to revise and improve their resumes.

For member's parents, Ability Online is in the process of forming a Parents Advisory Committee. In the meantime, the website offers age-restricted threads where adults can communicate with each other. One such parent who benefits from the website is Dr. Jane Salter, who was first introduced to Ability Online in 2003 when her daughter Aisling became a member during a lengthy hospital stay. Aisling, 16, has lupus, a condition that often interrupts one's school and social life for unpredictable periods of time. "Ability Online helps its members achieve potential that may be hidden to others and perhaps even themselves," says Salter. "We have witnessed this awakening within our daughter. When Aisling first experienced the isolation that can come with a life-changing illness, Ability Online offered a place of refuge and relief from her isolation, as well as a place to have fun, share stories and learn from peers. When family, friends and doctors were unable to understand (her feelings), there was always someone (on the website) who could listen without judgment, someone who had 'been' there' and had some insight to share."

Aisling agrees. "Ability Online helped me to stay connected when I was pretty isolated. I made new friends and almost five years later I am still in touch with many of the people I met through Ability. I love Ability and am so thankful for it. It has made a huge difference in my life."

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About Alessandro Nicolo