People with intellectual disability staying connected online during the COVID-19 pandemic

Author: Lisa O'Neill

O'Neill, Lisa, 2021 People with intellectual disability staying connected online during the COVID-19 pandemic, Flinders University, College of Nursing and Health Sciences

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This study sought to hear from the voices of people with intellectual disability about their experiences in online communication, particularly in relation to COVID-19 social restrictions. It recognised that people with intellectual disability have been found to have limited social networks and higher levels of loneliness than the broader community, and may therefore be more impacted by COVID-related social restrictions. The study asked rural and suburban participants with intellectual disability about their online communication experiences, the factors that assisted good communication, barriers, and strategies to work around those barriers.

An advisor with intellectual disability was employed to provide advice and critique on the study design, participant recruitment, project documentation and high level findings. Two semi-structured focus group sessions were held, one face to face, and the other held over video conference, with ten participants with intellectual disability and one support worker participant. Thematic analysis in three stages was used to analyse the data, with four themes of ‘connecting’, ‘independence’, ‘difficulties’ and ‘support’ developing. A visual representation of the themes highlighted the interactions between them, and in particular the way that support was connected with all of the other themes. Good, timely support enabled participants to have more positive communications online, and less effective or knowledgeable support meant participants were less likely to have good online communications and in some cases little online communication at all.

Participants were all able to take part in online communication during COVID-related social restrictions, but in some cases support workers and family members needed to provide assistance with devices, connecting to the Internet and working through issues that arose. When participants were connected online there were advantages for them; they sought social support, connected to activities, to family and friends, expressed themselves, enjoyed themselves and helped others to connect online. The study included older adults and some participants with communication difficulties, who wanted to connect online, and with assistance, were able to be connected online during the social restrictions.

The four themes identified in this study, of ‘connecting’, ‘independence’, ‘difficulties’, and ‘support’ showed the benefits that can occur for people with intellectual disability through being connected online. The importance of capable, timely support to work through barriers and issues that arose was also clear, and points to the need for resourcing for support workers and family to better enable their assistance. This should include the provision of accessible information for both support people and people with intellectual disability.

Keywords: Intellectual Disability, connected, online, COVID-19

Subject: Disability Studies thesis

Thesis type: Masters
Completed: 2021
School: College of Nursing and Health Sciences
Supervisor: Dr Fiona Rillotta