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Running a Self-Help Group by Computer

© Tom Ferguson MD

Kevin Flood staggers across the room, sprawls on his desk chair, and switches on his computer. Kevin, a recovering alcoholic, has gone without a drink for nearly three weeks, the longest he's remained "dry" in 10 years. But now things are getting tough: His wife threatened to leave him. Kevin has been drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and crying all evening. So far he has stayed away from the bottle, but it is now three a.m. and his willpower is nearly gone.

Kevin's hands shake as he types his computer network's connect routine. Then the connection goes through— and he is part of an on-line Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He lets out a sigh, leans forward, and began to type.

Georgia Griffith always looks forward to her Wednesday night self-help group, which is made up of a dozen people with various disabling conditions. In many ways, Georgia's group is much like the other 500,000 U. S. self-help groups. Members discuss common concerns and exchange practical information and emotional support. But this group is special: Its members live thousands of miles apart, and none leave their homes to attend the meeting. Georgia, who coordinates the group, is both deaf and blind. This self-help group takes place over a computer network, and Georgia communicates with the other proud members by means of a computer keyboard and Braille printer.

A new breed of "on-line" services—like those used by Kevin and Georgia—are bringing self-help and mutual aid to a new generation of health-responsible people. It is now possible, via the computer, to "reach out and touch someone" with an ease we never imagined—24 hours a day.

Making Disabilities Disappear. These new computer networks are especially important to people with disabilities. Disabled members of computer-based self-help groups frequently say that when they are interacting with other group members via computer, their disabilities seem to "disappear." Before the computer age, disabled people were faced with a difficult dilemma: They have the greatest need for—and benefit the most from—self-help groups. Yet many disabilities make it difficult to attend such groups. Low-cost, portable computers now provide a solution.

This self-help group’s members live thousands of miles apart. The leader is both blind and deaf. Meetings take place by computer and a Braille printer.

Take the example of Jim Cahill, a retired air traffic controller who became very involved as a volunteer for an on-line AIDS support program. During this time, Ed developed inoperable stomach cancer. Eventually he grew so sick that he could no longer go to the group's office. He used a laptop computer to continue his work with AIDS patients from his bed at a local hospice right up until the day he died, sharing his thoughts and feelings about his own illness and encouraging others to make use of visualization and other healing techniques.

Computer Self-Help. New technological developments allow disabled persons to communicate more effectively. Quadraplegics in a Maryland computer network use a newly developed program to convert their spoken words into computer text. Homebound students can receive their entire four years of college via a computer network from the Institute of Technology in Greenvale, New York. As computers and other electronic marvels become more powerful and more affordable, they will open up new possibilities for mutual help.

"Although these new advances have special meaning for disabled persons, these new forms of electronic communication will eventually revolutionize the way we all communicate," says Ed Madara, Director of the SelfHelp Clearinghouse in Denville, New Jersey. "Such electronic devices will serve to increase the linkages between people, ideas, and concerns. These new technologies can be a means of providing innovative ways for people to find and develop the mutual aid and support they need."

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About The Author
Tom Ferguson, M.D. (1943-2006), was a pioneering physician, author, and researcher who virtually led the movement to advocate informed self-care as the starting point for good health. Dr. Ferguson studied and wrote about the empowered medical consumer since 1975 and about online health resources for consumers since 1987. He founded the influential journal Medical Self-Care and the......more
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