Strengthening their bonds

Online communication enhances relationships for those with disabilities

Email|Print| Text size + By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / November 26, 2007

WELLESLEY - Gregory Walsh and Austin Lam sit facing each other in their wheelchairs, saying nothing.

Outwardly, that is. But on a level beyond speech, the 28-year-old Walsh and the 13-year-old Austin are communicating plenty.

The two have a special relationship: Walsh, who lives in Braintree, is Austin's mentor and role model. Through his own example, he teaches the Wellesley boy how to live day-to-day with the challenges posed by their shared disability: cerebral palsy.

Soon, though, the two will be able to communicate even more fully. Austin's parents plan to soon acquire a specially equipped computer device that will enable him to access the Internet. That means he and Walsh will join the growing ranks of disabled mentors and their younger proteges who communicate online under a program run by Partners for Youth with Disabilities, a nonprofit organization based in Boston.

"It's going to open up a whole new area for Gregory and Austin," said Janice Walsh, Gregory's mother. "It will reinforce their relationship. They'll become even better friends than they are now."

Walsh's prediction rests on a solid foundation: She has seen the bonds tighten between her son and his longtime mentor since they began a regular online dialogue.

It was just four years ago that Partners for Youth with Disabilities added an online component to its mentoring program, and discovered a pent-up demand. Up to that point, the organization had averaged 60 to 80 new mentorship matches a year between disabled adults and disabled youths. The organization continues to average 60 matches a year under the traditional mentoring program, but in the past four years has also added more than 600 matches under the online program.

Participants don't just communicate regularly with each other, but also take part in online chats and forums with other disabled youths and adults that revolve around issues that range from politics to careers to the challenges of living independently. "Youths that were isolated have been able to have experiences, education, and support that they wouldn't otherwise have had," said Regina Snowden, founder and CEO of Partners for Youth with Disabilities. "Children and adults with health issues that make travel difficult have been able to let the outside world in."

Walsh, for example, cannot speak or use his hands. To communicate in person, he moves his eyes from one letter to another on a plastic letter board to spell out words. It is a laborious process. But Internet use is another matter. He is able to play chess online and regularly e-mail questions to his mentor, George Donahue of Watertown, via a computer with a large switch he can manipulate with his right foot.

"George has been a mentor and a friend to me," Walsh wrote via e-mail. "He has introduced me to many new people and new experiences."

At 53, Donahue is struck by how online communication and other technological tools have leveled the playing field and expanded the horizon for people with disabilities. "Being online and talking to other people, it keeps you social," said Donahue, who has a neurological disorder called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and uses a wheelchair. "You don't feel alone." For young disabled people, he added, "They're more accepted. It's a different ball game."

The mentoring program runs background checks on the adults before matching them with disabled youths (for the purposes of the mentoring program, the organization defines "youth" as anyone under 24). If the pairing clicks, mentors and proteges can stay in contact via e-mail, instant-messaging, and Internet forums. But it doesn't always click. "We always tell folks that it's like any relationship," said Snowden. "There can come a time when you're ready to move on. We tell them not to feel discouraged if that happens, that we can find other mentors and mentees."

Sometimes a mentoring relationship that began offline will move online. That's what happened between Walsh and Donahue. The two met nine years ago under the original mentoring program run by Partners, but in recent years, due to the online program, they have been in more frequent contact. They still meet in person, but they also exchange e-mails (sometimes at a scheduled time, sometimes when one sees the other is taking part in one of the online forums) at least twice a week.

"A lot of times when we're online, Gregory may bring up a topic he wants to discuss," said Donahue. "We have lengthy talks online, man to man. Greg has questions, and I do my best to answer them."

Online, Walsh has asked Donahue such basic questions as where to find a wheelchair with a more comfortable seat and whether he should take a certain college class pass-fail. He also asked Donahue for advice on some matters he'd rather not discuss with his parents, such as how to navigate the world of dating and romance.

Through his own example, Donahue has also answered the unspoken question many disabled youths are likely to have: Will I be able to work and support myself? As a kitchen design expediter at the Home Depot in Waltham, Donahue shows Walsh that a disability is no impediment to a career. Walsh, for his part, has shown a drive and an intellectual curiosity, especially about technology, that convinces his mentor he will eventually invent a device that will make life easier for the disabled. One way or another, Donahue predicts, "he's going to put his name on the map."

Walsh has taken the lessons he learned from Donahue and applied them to his relationship with Austin. The two have formed a tight bond. In his e-mail, Walsh wrote: "I want to be a friend to Austin like George has been a friend to me, someone he can look up to, like I look up to George."

He has apparently achieved that goal. Austin is largely nonverbal, but when his mother, Pam Lam, asked her son whether he likes having an older friend, Austin responded with a gesture that means yes. His mother added: "And that you can go places and do things together, like go bowling?" Austin gestured yes again. (When they go candlepin bowling, the balls are placed atop 10-foot wooden ramps that rest on the arms of their wheelchairs. They then push the ball down the ramp, sometimes with the assistance of family members.)

Beyond transmitting his enthusiasm for the Red Sox to his young protege, Walsh provides living proof of the heights to which the seventh-grader can aspire. Walsh recently earned a certificate from Massasoit Community College in Brockton that affirmed his proficiency in Word, Access, Excel, and PowerPoint programs. He is now going for an associate's degree in liberal arts.

"When we see the potential and the possibilities [Walsh] has accomplished, it gives us a lot of hope," said Pam Lam.

Added Janice Walsh: "What he imparts is the success of a physically disabled young man who can go to college, and the message that life doesn't have to be that different, even if you're severely disabled."

But Gregory Walsh also gets a lot back, according to his mother. "He feels like he is the adult in the relationship," she said. "He really is proud of that. He's always telling people that Austin is his mentee."

The depth of the relationship between the two was made clear recently when they were assigned to different teams on one of the bowling expeditions their families regularly undertake together. Each of them found a way to communicate to his parents his displeasure about being separated from his pal. "He let me know with his facial expressions," Pam Lam said, of Austin. "He gave me a very big sad face, before and after."

She believes that online communication will make a world of difference to Austin, in his relationship with Walsh and beyond. "He wants to feel connection," she said. "It will be his window to the world."

Because of his disability, Austin Lam does not have the use of his fingers, but he can use his knuckles to hit a switch that will enable him to control the computer and communicate online. When he does, he will find an eager correspondent in his friend and mentor.

"I am looking forward to the day that Austin and I can communicate together," Gregory Walsh wrote in his e-mail. "I want to know what he is thinking about."

Don Aucoin can be reached at

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