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."