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Social networks provide a welcome opportunity for people with developmental disabilities to meet new people and spend time with friends and family.

Every day, more than 175 million users log into Facebook. They're curious about what their friends are doing; they share funny videos; they write about how they're feeling and why. It's a virtual village square, a place to connect with others from the comfort and security of home.

For Community Living BC - a provincial crown organization that delivers supports and services to people with developmental disabilities - social networks such as Facebook are an increasingly valuable tool. With a successful Facebook page already in operation, CLBC is launching two new Facebook pages this month, CLBC Connections! for self-advocates and Families Connect-a forum for supporting developmental disabilities (CLBC), and will also be on Twitter.

Social networks provide a welcome opportunity for people with developmental disabilities to meet new people and spend time with friends and family. This is especially important for those who may be isolated either geographically or due to limitations of a disability. Individuals with literacy and visual limitations are able to access information from CLBC using audio, images and video through sites such as YouTube, Vimeo and Flickr.

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Jenny Chang and Cheryl Fryfield are two of a growing number of people with developmental disabilities who are using social networks to stay in touch.

Jenny has worked as a receptionist at the CLBC office for the past four years. She gets along well with the people in her office, she says, because they treat her with respect.

She enjoys bowling and plans to sign up for softball in the Special Olympics next year. But when she's not busy with sports or work, you might find her on online.

"I've been on Facebook for about a year," she says, adding that she enjoys chatting with her friends on Facebook's instant messaging service and MSN Messenger.

Cheryl also works part time at CLBC, and often comments on CLBC's 'Start with Hi,' page. "Facebook keeps me busy at night when I'm bored," she says, laughing.

Using Facebook reconnected Cheryl with a high school friend that she'd lost touch with many years ago. "We had a falling out. But she [found me]on Facebook, and we're talking again. She came to visit last month."

But a global community has its dangers, too, and Cheryl is grateful that she knew enough about online safety to avoid falling for a scam last year. "A friend mentioned that he had a daughter in another country, and I'd heard a lot about [scamming activity] Everything was fine for a while; then he told me that his daughter had had an accident, and his credit cards were frozen. He asked for money, so I blocked him."

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Being careful hasn't diminished her enjoyment of being online. "If I get upset, I put a message on my Facebook status about it, and I get support," she says. "The other day I put a message on saying that I was being interviewed [for this article] and people were happy for me. I get support and good feedback."

When her mother moved to a seniors' home and Cheryl moved into her own home a few months ago, Facebook helped her overcome her feelings of loneliness.

"Just be careful who you talk to," she advises. "Don't give any money to any strangers, and if you feel you're being harassed, block that person."

Community Living BC online

Social media can enable people with developmental disabilities to make friends, meet people with similar interests, and engage in community activities, and Community Living BC is now using online tools to help bring people together.

This online community will inform self-advocates and families of community events and groups that may be of interest and will allow people to share stories and experiences with others throughout the province and around the world.

CLBC takes online safety seriously. Through education and collaboration, the organization is working with users to ensure a safe online experience. The organization supports the development of formal safeguards to ensure the safety and wellbeing of individuals with development disabilities, but recognises that formal safeguards are not enough. Informal safeguards are also essential: having friends to talk to, places to go for fun and the opportunity to be involved in your community can help improve quality of life and build protection and provides support for people when they feel vulnerable.

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Visit our "Families Connect" Facebook page here.

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