By Robert Kingett
Once in our lives, if not more than once, there’s a sentence that flutters out of our mouths without hesitation. People utter this sentence when they want something really badly and feel like that new book would enhance their lives or that video game would make the winter bearable or that movie would help bring the family together. So people say it, believing they really mean what they say.
It’s the sentence, “I need that.”
A dictionary has many definitions for the word “need.” Naturally, an online dictionary holds more definitions, and, of course, links. Until last month, when I decided to take up a challenge by a friend to not use any internet for a month, I didn’t really understand what I needed or even why I needed it.
Back in September, the sun speckled the ground, even though the weather was cold in Chicago. I was sitting in a park with an engineer friend of mine, talking about the internship that I applied for but didn’t get. Suddenly, he blurted out an exclamation of “Oh my god, Robbie, you have GOT to read this!”
So I did, or rather, listened, having limited vision. It was an article that said that killing net neutrality would help people with disabilities. Verizon was saying that if the internet were split into a fast lane and a slow lane, people with disabilities would have much better internet. Naturally, the irony wasn’t lost on me. In most cases, no matter how politically correct people want me to be ever since I started saying it, a good portion of the disabled populace are very poor, so the idea Verizon had was utter nonsense.
“That’s a complete fallacy!” I spluttered, shifting my weight so my good eye could stare fully at Marcus. “I know,” he agreed, but we ranted and raved for a while, just to make sure our thoughts were out in the open, even if it was between the two of us. Suddenly, he commented, “I have an idea. Why don’t I give you a challenge, you know, like a dare?” I liked the prospect of a dare, so I accepted his challenge before having the intellect to ask what it was.
“Why don’t you, as a person with a disability, live without the internet for one month, including in schools and in libraries and the like—no internet at all for one month.”
And that’s how it started. The challenge began on October 1st. The night before, I uninstalled the components that my laptop needs to connect to the world wide web and I was soon swept up in a different world, one that was inaccessible to me and to which I had to adapt to on my own, since I live alone in an apartment complex. I really did learn the difference between needing something and wanting the convenience of something.
I assumed I was going to do the everyday things that people did, such as walk outside, even though it was starting to get cold in Chicago. I thought that I’d write more about what I did and why I did it, rather than my thoughts and observations about the internet-less life. Still, I wrote down every observation I had, and things that happened to me… and, opinions.
Living offline changed me in many ways that I didn’t even see coming. For the first few days, I needed to get online, I wanted to look up something. I wanted to type in the commands and the search strings that would get me exactly what I wanted, how I wanted it, where I wanted it. Without that power, for a few days, I was utterly lost because I didn’t know how to cope after that power had been taken away. Even though I felt as though I was going to back down in the first few days, I kept on with the challenge.
The fact is, the internet is a requirement, especially for the disabled community. I experienced much frustration simply because I could no longer do something as basic as hooking up a landline phone because I couldn’t download the manual from the website. I had to rely on the sighted population more than I have ever needed to in the past. This, in turn, forced me to adapt differently and to develop new kinds of trust in people. In a way, I was back to a dependent state, so I had to figure out how to craft my own independence.
Without the internet there isn’t as much accessible information. On the internet I can look up any news or any manual I want to. Writers are not limited by space and advertising columns, so they can provide in-depth reporting.
Mainstream media doesn’t tell you about all the news that’s happening or the kind of topics people want to know. There’s no tech news radio station, for example. Magazines are not publishing physical editions, and TV networks… well, there’s no LGBT news on cable TV. The fact is, people want to know. On the radio and TV everything is delegated by space and time. When you have limited options to get information, it becomes a need, not a luxury. I had to cope with losing that by asking more questions from other people and relying on their answers. Sometimes, it was effective. Other times, it wasn’t, but I did it because that’s what I had to do.
I noticed, though, that I was getting a lot more things done. Without links to jump to, I had a huge attention span. I would write more articles in a day than I ever did while online, but that’s because I couldn’t look at a distracting factor such as email or Twitter. It grew into a productive month.
I also found that I had improved conversation skills by the end of the month. Take dating. In my journal, I talked about Travis, a dashing boy, and how he and I met on a bus and grew to know each other through long phone conversations. I think the internet tries to define so many people in such few characters but it just can’t. Still, people believe that what they read on Facebook and Twitter is the whole package when it’s not. I learned that someone could say something and mean it a different way, without the need to add an emoticon to their sentences.
I learned that getting to know someone via the phone is much better than dating online, for instance, because it’s like listening to an audiobook of that person’s diary. I asked questions and listened to stories, and learned many things progressively rather than learning everything at once. This was much better.
We live, however, in a world that needs the internet, no matter where you live. I learned that the hard way last month when I didn’t get hired for a job because I couldn’t use the internet. It really has shocked me how it’s turned into an unclassified utility. Sure, apartment owners are saying it is a utility but not the government, not the people higher up. It should be. Why? Because I know what it’s like, as a disabled person, to live without the internet for one month and a disabled life without internet is not a completely independent world. The internet breaks down barriers, even if we can’t see them.
Robert Kingett is a journalist in Chicago who brings disability news and issues into mainstream media. He is the leader of many campaigns for the blind and the LGBT communities, most notably, the accessible Netflix project. He reports human interest profiles, crime, political articles, and many more types of pieces in various blogs and magazines. Find him online at www.robertkingett.com