A little over 19 years ago I was sitting in my home office reading the Avenues Newsletter and I came across a letter to the editor from a young Carly Matthews stating that she had just started an internet chat room for people with AMC (Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita.) I have AMC too so I decided to join, and since I had the resources and technical background, I offered to help her out by designing an official website and creating HandiBot.
Our first day online was Feb 17, 1997. The very first person to enter the chat room (other than Carly and I) was Sven, who remains my very good friend to this very day. Oddly enough, Sven was not physically disabled and didn't even know what the room was about; he was just looking for a place to help him learn English.
With a lot of internet advertising and word of mouth, the room became a success. We had official topic based meetings every Wednesday night at 8:00 pm and normal chat the rest of the week. Soon the room expanded to support all disabilities, not just AMC.
Although I cannot mark the day, Carly eventually left and I took over completely and re-branded the site as Disabilities-R-Us. I moved everything off of free public hosting sites and onto paid private networks with rock solid stability. We had 7 wholly owned independent service, chat and web servers spread across 4 countries and our own custom Windows compatible chat software.
For the next 10 years, I paid the expenses out of my own pocket. Believe me, it was by no means cheap. This was geek heaven to me so it was worth it, though the problem we had is that having a single benefactor does not make for a long term viable community. Not only do people need to have a sense of investment in their community to truly appreciate it, they only way to gauge the effectiveness of the community is by how willing it is to sustain itself. Since then, donations have mostly paid for everything.
The Internet was quite a different place back then. If you were online, it was only because you or someone you knew was technically competent enough to get everything working. There were few casual all day internet users. People came on because they had something to do and they left when they were done. A small few ventured into chat rooms and the ones who stayed tended to have fun and intellectual conversations. Nobody had enemies and gossip and rumors were rare. If there was an argument, people were friends again the next day.
Back then things were safer too. I have had the privilege of meeting many of my chat friends in person. For a few I flew or drove cross country to meet them and for many more, they came to visit me. Many have stayed in my home or I have stayed in theirs. Those days are long gone though so if you’re thinking about it, think twice. People were more honest and helpful back then.
On March 15, 2014, I appointed my long time friend and associate, Derek Barton (aka TiGgEr) as the new administrator for Disabilities-R-Us. Like a CEO, he is now in charge of the strategic, operation, and organizational process of the chat room. He is the boss. As far as the room goes, I just provide my expertise in the technical aspects and occasionally deal with any trouble. I also still maintain the website and deal with fundraising because technically I am still the "owner" of record when it comes to the long arm of the law and the IRS. I don't expect anyone else to take on that legal liability. Since then, I have always deferred to Derek when it comes to implementing his room policies. The room has maintained itself quite well and even grown since then.