How the net can make a difference

Alex Greenwood interviews five net users who've found that technology really has improved the qualit

In the Sixties and Seventies, the internet was a testosterone-fuelled man's world populated solely by military types and academics. Twenty years and 300 million users later, the net is finally starting to have an effect on the lives of everyday people: they are using the net to communicate with relatives on the other side of the world, they're using it to set up support groups, they're using it to track down lost friends and family members and, most importantly, they're using it to put up photos of their pets. Yes, I know it sounds cheesy, but technology really can change lives . . .

I found a new career

Athena Johnson stumbled on a web community while surfing and, after hearing the members' motivational stories, she now plans to go back to college to study medicine after the birth of her second child. She found MomMD (mommd.org), an online community for mothers who are practising physicians or medical students. Founded in 1998 by Sethina Edwards, the site offers discussion groups and mentor programmes among its support services.

"My experience with MomMD has been nothing but positive," Johnson says. "I am a stay-at-home mom who is also very career-minded, and finding the site helped me realise that I can have both worlds - a family and a career - and be successful at both roles - mom and working professional.

"I was excited, relieved and happy that there are other women who feel the same way as I do," she continues. "I've been very motivated by the stories of MomMD members and have decided that it's not impossible for me to pursue a medical education. I plan to go back to school, study hard, get a good job and raise my son and daughter."

Johnson feels that the online community has changed her life and perspective. She says: "It helped me to see that be- coming a doctor and being a mother is a compatible arrangement and, although it is difficult and challenging, it can be rewarding and satisfying as well. You don't have to sacrifice your dreams to raise your children, and vice versa."

For Johnson, the value of the site comes down to the connection she feels with other members. "I see a lot of myself in the women who are members. They are up to the challenge of going for what they want, despite limited encouragement and support.

"Many of them, like myself, are deciding on medicine later in life," she continues. "There are women in their thirties with four children who are choosing to embark on a difficult and long journey. These women are my role models."

Before Johnson discovered the site, she thought that women who combined family and a medical career belonged to a small race of superwoman mothers. "I was wrong!" she exclaims. "MomMD has helped me realise that there are others out there who have a dream and who believe in balancing a career in medicine and raising healthy children."

I found support

Wendy Bond is a member of the online support group Adders (adders.org). She joined the British site devoted to attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder in February and, after two years of trying to get her daughter assessed for attention deficit disorder (ADD), she managed to get her a clinical diagnosis within months.

Through the site, Bond gained enough knowledge about ADD to lead her to the right professionals. "I have now got answers to questions I've been asking for too long," she says. "If it hadn't been for Adders, I think I would probably still be reading - and getting bored with - books on the subject."

She found the site through a search for information on ADD. "Adders was vital for me at the time," says Bond, who describes herself as a "34-years-young" married mum. "I was desperate to find an answer as to why one of my daughters was having so many difficulties."

The site's value falls into a variety of areas. "It gives links to related internet sites, as well as recommending books on the subject," she says. "But the most valuable aspect of the site, I've found, is having contact with people who are in the same situation as me without feeling intrusive.

"There's a united atmosphere, with lots of support from the members," she continues. "Advice is given freely and, for myself, I don't feel that I am alone with my problems. People involved with Adders genuinely care."

I found shopping

The internet gives Mark Prouse information that wouldn't normally exist for him. As a visually impaired person, the web offers him choices and details of products he'd find difficult to get hold of elsewhere. "The internet has given me the chance to consider purchases more," he says. "I can get more details about products and do the buying there and then."

Prouse uses access technology to convert electronic script into sound and Braille. "I use Jaws for Windows, which is a screen-reader software program that relays website content to my sound card and then to my speech synthesiser so that I can 'hear' the site content," he explains. "It also speaks links to me and reads the text of a web page. I also have a Braille display. So the net gives me access to previously inaccessible news, from local information such as council news and even events at the local park, to national and international conferences."

After admitting that he would describe himself as a bit of a techie, Prouse says: "And, because I like poetry, the internet allows me to find and access poetry, which I wouldn't be able to read otherwise." He laughs: "Although it doesn't really sound much good when it's read out by a speech synthesiser, so I normally download it on to my Braille screen."

I found the dentist's chair

Mary Murphy connects to the internet every morning to visit Beyond Fear (beyondfear.org), the online support group that brings together people who share a terrible fear of the dentist. "I like to check the message boards to see if I can be of any help to anyone else," says the 39-year-old mother of two. "The times vary, usually when I can grab a minute or two."

Murphy believes the site has been a life-saver for her. "I have had a terrible dental phobia for the past ten years, due to a horrific experience at the dentist. It was like living with a dark cloud over my head, and I had nightmares about my teeth falling out. But then I stumbled on Beyond Fear and, for the first time in my life, I realised I wasn't alone with this phobia."

After making online friendships with others who logged on to the site, Murphy finally sought dental care for the first time in ten years and is now in the process of getting her teeth functional again. "I realised that, if other people could tackle this fear, I could as well," she says. "By sharing our fears and emotions, we give each other the support and encouragement we need to seek help. Now if I have a dental appointment and feel like running away and cancelling it, people rally behind me."

Murphy is very grateful to Beyond Fear. "I'm in touch with people from all over the world, and I never would have had an opportunity to meet them and develop friendships otherwise. The internet has changed my life."

I found lost relatives

Mike Ray discovered long-lost relatives and family in Miami after he entered his family name into a genealogy website. "It turns out that my grandfather had a second family consisting of seven children who, in their turn, have produced 27 cousins," he says.

The discovery came when Ray found a genealogy website and typed in his surname. "Lo and behold, the search revealed a lady in the Caribbean who was looking for contacts with the same surname as myself and also my grandfather's mother's surname," says Ray. The lady turned out to be his first cousin who lives in Barbados and has a different grandmother to him. "This newfound family were all totally unaware of my grandfather's first family," he says.

The family connection stems from his grandfather's mysterious "disappearance" to Grenada after he separated from his wife. "The last evidence we had of him being alive was a postcard dated 1915, which had survived in my late father's postcard collection. My father was still a young boy, and it seems that the family assumed that he had died," Ray explains. "Over the years, we've made various searches, all to no avail, and no one in the family could provide any clues."

After making contact with his new family, Ray was invited to Miami for a family get-together. Things got even better after that. "We were then invited to visit Barbados by my new cousin," he says. "That we were related came as a great shock to all parties."

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