Introducing Ability Online
We welcome Ability Online as our newest charity. Read on to find out more!
From the official Ability Online website:
Ability Online is a supportive online community for kids, teens and young adults with all kinds of disabilities or chronic illnesses. We also have a separate section for parents and professionals. Membership is free and the online experience is safe, secure and monitored. There are just under 6000 members currently registered with Ability Online. Programs for the youth include Bully Bouncers, Friendship Builder and Transition Plus.
Ability Online helps members build confidence and skills by connecting them to a supportive community of role models and mentors, linking them to great learning resources, and providing them with a safe and nurturing platform to receive assistance tailored to their specific learning needs. It allows any member (child, teen or parent) to connect with others for friendship, support and information in a secure, bully-free environment where the goal is to help our members accomplish great things! A new program Healthy Minds is just being developed with support of members of Ability Online and is designed to support young people with disabilities and mental health challenges. Visit www.abilityonline.org for more information or contact the Executive Director, Michelle McClure, at 416-650-6207 or email
Here is a brief interview with Executive Director Michelle McClure. Click here to listen to the sound clip:
FF – Hello, Michelle, and welcome to Ferreira Fest. We’re so thrilled to have you join us today! Could you tell us a little bit about Ability Online, what it is that you do, and how it all started?
MM – Absolutely! Ability Online is a small charity. But it started twenty-five years ago by a psychiatrist at the Hospital for Sick Children here in Toronto. And she had discovered back then what was called a bulletin board system where people could communicate with one another in a text based environment using a modem to connect the computers together via a phone line. What was ideal about this, that she discovered, is that it didn’t matter what you looked like, whether or not you had a disability, but you could reach out to others and develop a friendship.
And people got to know you based on what you wrote, not on what you look like or how you talk. That was really critical because she was working with a lot of individuals who had severe burns, or physical disabilities, and so she had this “Aha!” moment of what a great way to break down the social isolation that many of these children experience because they have a hard time making friends in the traditional face-to-face environment.
And also many members, especially back then, when we didn’t have the wired world that we do now, many of these children were isolated because they were the only one in their school or their community that had a particular disability or had an accident or an illness, and they didn’t have anybody else that they could talk to that could relate to what they were going through.
So the idea was to create this safe, monitored online community where the children could come online and find others, and be connected to role models and mentors for inspiration and support.
When Dr. Lefebvre was developing the program, she approached the pediatric rehabilitation center where I was working, and was looking for someone to help her develop the concept. The Hospital for Sick Children worked very closely with what’s now called Holland Bloorview, and that’s where I was working as a recreation therapist. So I was off to meet with her and check it out and just fell in love with the concept of it and thought it was fantastic, and started using it in my practice. I was working primarily with teens with head injuries, and it was amazing to see the change that came over them when they were online and they realized that they could make friends, and that there were other people that understood exactly what they were going through.
The program has evolved over the years and survived for twenty-five years, especially nowadays when we have Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and all those other ways of connecting, that there still is a real need for our program because a lot of our members don’t survive in a Facebook type environment.
They might not have the social skills or the cognitive ability to carry on a conversation. And they’re the ones that are going to be teased, and so our environment, because it’s secure and monitored means that there’s absolutely no bullying or teasing. And it’s just this warm, friendly place where they can come and talk about the things that are of interest to them.
Or they can talk about their disability, it’s totally their choice.
It’s also an all-inclusive environment. Anybody who wants to find a friend or be a friend is welcome to join.
We encourage people with all abilities to connect, because that’s what the real world is like. It’s not just all these children with cerebral palsy connecting together, it’s everybody connecting and making those relationships.
And we now have just over six thousand registered members from across Canada and the United States. About twenty-five percent of our membership now is coming from the States.
FF – Oh, that’s wonderful, that’s great that it’s starting to bridge borders and everything. Now, how do you evaluate a successful collaboration in your organization, say between two people who are starting an e-mail thread?
MM – We do content analysis. And you can see the change in attitude that comes through in the messaging, as well as their communication skills. So we really watch for that shift from feeling negative, isolated, lonely, to feeling validated.
And we see an increase in self-esteem and confidence. And you can read that in their words, the messages that come across, and the frequency with which they log on, and they’re coming back. And, for us, we’ve had members that have stayed with us for fifteen-plus years, which is a real testament to the kind of community that we’ve built. And then they want to give back as well, which is the other piece. So it’s not just them coming and taking, but then they want to give back and they become online volunteers, or role models and mentors themselves. Or they tell other people about it.
And then we know. And that’s where the word of mouth has spread. And that we’ve really been successful in making these connections between individuals, and also between organizations.
We work with a lot of healthcare centers and schools across Canada and the States, and those collaborations that help us find the youth and young adult members that would benefit from an environment like ours.
FF – That sounds wonderful. Now, the reason why we became aware of you is because Louis has just recently signed on as a Cyberdad. So, could you tell us what Louis’ role as a Cyberdad would entail, what he’s going to be doing there?
MM – This is really novel for us, and it was so exciting after we met with him, and just heard his passion as a father, in general. I was sharing a story with him about a Cybergrannie that we had, and that many of our children might be in single parent families, or they might be being raised by their grandparents, or they might not have any grandparents, and so to be able to connect them to someone who plays that role in real life, to have someone they can look up to, very much like a role model that we use, we have different athletes.
Well, when I was talking with him I thought, you know, you would be fantastic with our youth. And not only sharing stories of his role as an actor, which will be very exciting for them, but also his role as a dad and how he nurtures the relationship with his children.
And to be there to encourage the kids and inspire them to follow their dreams, and the dreams can be any size. And so we’re setting up this environment where he’s going to be able to connect. I’ve created a page for him within Ability Online. It has his pictures and talks about his career. But also that the other most important role that he has in his life is not the actor but it’s the dad.
He’ll be able to come online and share his own experiences and be there for those kids that may not have a strong father figure in their life. And we’re thrilled to be able to open this up and create this new role for our members.
FF – That sounds wonderful. Now, how can Ferreira Fest readers get involved and help, and what kind of people are you looking for, and what is the time commitment?
MM – That’s the beauty of running a virtual community. It runs 24/7, we cross the time zones, so people can come online whenever they have any time available to them.
Because it’s a text based forum and its communication is forums where they post their comments, and then they can go in and respond whenever they have a moment, that’s what makes it ideal. And so it’s not a set time of day, it’s whenever you’ve got a moment you can go on and you can join.
So, in terms of the Ferreira Fest readers, they could get involved, there may be people out there that have disabilities or illnesses themselves. They might be mentors where they’re active in a particular sport or have an area of expertise that they could share with other members.
We have people who have an interest in music, in cooking, and they share those talents with others online. They become an online volunteer that helps run a content forum and just be part of the environment.
And it is divided into different sections.
We have a section for the kids and teens. We have one for the young adults. And then we also have a section for parents and professionals. So if there are people out there that are parents and want to get involved in our community, we welcome them. If they are professionals that work in the world of disability, or if they have expertise in an area, for example we have a financial advisor who comes online and answers questions.
And because we have members from the States, it would be great to get some more volunteers who live in the States and can actually answer questions for our American members. Because some of the regulations and guidelines in where you find different services are different from state to state, just as they are from province to province.
But it really is this wonderful community where people who get involved tend to stay. A lot of my volunteers are ten-plus years of service volunteers, because they love the experience.
The other area where we would really benefit from assistance is word of mouth. Telling people about Ability Online, and what we do for our families. And we also have an equipment grant program, so for families who are members of Ability Online, and they have a child who’s eighteen years of age and under who has a disability, and they need a particular piece of equipment, then we can help them acquire that equipment through our donation program.
We have the Ability Gives website where people can donate to a specific child and their equipment, and there’s also a “donate now” button on our Ability Online website so that they can, if people are able and willing to help, every dollar makes a difference.
And what we’re really thrilled about, because we are a virtual community and I work out of a home office, our overhead expenses are very low.
One hundred percent of the money that we raise for the equipment goes directly to the equipment, and ninety percent of the money that we raise for the online program goes directly to the online program.
That’s a really great investment, so we’re always looking for members, people to help us spread the word, and then the money to keep the charity going.
FF – Well, that sounds just wonderful. Thank you so much for taking the time, for telling us about Ability Online, and I wish you all the best for your work in supporting such a worthy cause.
MM – Thank you so much for what you’re doing as well and I think this is going to be a wonderful relationship all the way around.
FF – Yes, I agree. So, I hope you have a wonderful rest of the day, and I hope to talk to you soon.
MM – That sounds wonderful, thank you so much.
FF – Okay, thank you, bye-bye.
MM – Bye-bye.
Louis was excited to join Ability Online as a Cyber Dad! Here’s his story of why he became a volunteer.
LF – “You know, I believe, really what happens is – you raise your kids. I’m a dad, I’m a single dad, and I’ve got a twenty-two year old and he’s completely pretty much independent. And I’m sitting here going, okay, what next?
Because I love being a dad so much. And have, and will continue to do so. But in the midterm, there’s a part of me that feels that something is missing.
And that gap where I think people can get to in their life after the fact is you look to serve in certain areas, and I always respect the people, and this is why we try to find charities, or get involved, and I still want to do much more of that…
So this opportunity presented itself because some guy remembered me from ten years ago, who called me out of the blue and said look, there’s this cause. And I said, “Yeah, let me just…”
He goes, “Would you have dinner with us?”
I said, “Sure, let’s have dinner and let’s talk about it.” I sat down, I talked about it.
She [Michelle McClure] got excited at the idea when I told her my story and my Camp Dada story.
She’s like, “You know what you’d be great at? A cyber dad.”
I’m like, “That’s perfect for me!”
What a great way to continue my dad theme and my dad role, and even the name, with something that got me excited!
And then the possibility that I can, in fact, once again serve others and make a difference, and these are kids who clearly have some challenges.
And the fact that they can feel that there are people out there who are just saying hello, and checking in on a regular basis. I think we all know the value of that, at the end of the day, I feel like more than anyone. And so that’s why I got involved. And so the idea that she was like… I almost felt like I was being knighted. “I knight you cyber dad!”
Oh my gosh! What an honor!
So that’s how that happened.”
Please join Louis in becoming a member at Ability Online! Sign up is free, and soon you’ll be able to chat with young people who will truly appreciate your friendship.
Thanks to Casey for the transcripts!
Please visit Ability Online’s Facebook page!
Follow Ability Online on Twitter!
Check out Ability Online’s Instagram feed!
Want to make a donation to Ability Online? Click on the logo below and you will be taken directly to their donations page. The same shortcut also exists on the Home Page. Every penny helps!
Click here to go to Ability Gives’ donations page and help a child gain mobile independence!
And here is an online version of the official organization brochure. Click on the images to see the full size version. Check it out!