The Digital Divide and People with Disabilities

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This is a post about the digital divide between people with disabilities and people who are not disabled. Disabled people use the Internet less than people without disabilities. They also have fewer computers and less access to high speed Internet. One problem is that many websites are hard for people with disabilities to use. Online access is needed for all people to be part of today’s society.

Digital Divide

On August 23, 2013, the New York Times published my letter to the editor about the digital divide and people with disabilities. The letter was in response to an an extensive article published by the Times on August 19, 2013, titled “Most of U.S. Is Wired, but Millions Aren’t Plugged In.” The article, based on a recent report by the U.S. Commerce Department, noted that “tens of millions of people are still on the sidelines of the digital revolution” and it went on to discuss the digital divide caused by various demographics including age, race, geography, education and class. Missing entirely from the Times’ article – disability and the digital divide.

The Commerce Department report contained important information about the extent to which people with disabilities are “still on the sidelines of the digital revolution.” Internet use among householders with a disability is only 48% compared to 76% for householders with no disability. Only 53% of households headed by a person with a disability own a computer, compared with 79% of households without a “disability householder.” The “broadband adoption rate” is 46% for disability householders, as compared to 73%. None of this information was included in the original Times report.

I appreciate that the New York Times published my letter. Ignoring people with disabilities when discussing computer, internet and broadband use further marginalizes a segment of society that is all too often ignored by web and mobile developers and content providers. At its core, digital accessibility means ensuring that web and mobile content is available to and usable by everyone. The absence of digital accessibility, coupled with other factors identified in the Times article, leaves far too many people with disabilities out of the digital age.

In 2013, digital exclusion means fewer employment, educational, social and political opportunities, lack of access to confidential financial and health information, and a general inability to fully participate in all aspects of society. Digital inclusion is a civil right. Articles about the digital divide do a disservice to everyone when any factor contributing to this troubling schism is left out.

My letter to the Times is posted below, along with a reader comment and links to other resources on disability and the digital divide, including the Commerce Department Report.

Letter to the Editor of the New York Times (Published August 23, 2013)

[This letter can also be read on the New York Times Website]

Dear Editor:

Your otherwise excellent article about the digital divide (“Most of U.S. Is Wired, but Millions Aren’t Plugged In,” Business Day, Aug. 19) missed an opportunity to discuss the significant digital divide between people with disabilities and those not (yet) disabled.

The Commerce Department report on which your article was based recognized the impact of disability. It found that Internet use among those with a disability is only 48 percent compared with 76 percent for those with no disability. In every metric used in the report, people with disabilities lagged behind. Your reporters rightly covered the digital divide based on race, age, education, class and geography. Disability deserved to be covered as well.

In my experience as a disability civil rights lawyer working with the blind community on technology and information access issues, the disability divide has two major components. First, disability cuts across and magnifies all other factors you mention.

Second, and equally important, there is a digital divide for people with disabilities because of a lack of accessible online content. Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, recognized that, saying

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect. Tim Berners Lee

Lainey Feingold
Berkeley, Calif., August 19, 2013

Resources on the Digital Divide and People with Disabilities

Comment from LFLegal reader

The Law Office of Lainey Feingold received the following comment from Adrian Spratt of Brooklyn, New York on the particular impact of the digital divide on people with disabilities:

The closely related point I would make is that digital communication has a bigger impact for disabled people than for just about everyone else. For example, without my ability to pick out headlines for myself, skim articles of possible interest and read with care those that have special significance for me, I’d be reliant on other people to make choices for me and to read aloud only those articles for which we could make time. Hiring people to do this work is way more expensive than working with a computer, while volunteers simply cannot be depended on. As you know, I’m just illustrating the larger point, which is that technology gives visually impaired people a level of access that was inconceivable ten, twenty and definitely thirty years ago. Other groups denied digital access can at least go to a local public library and take out books or go through periodicals. They can go to stores to buy books at little cost and read on their own time, whereas visually impaired people would need to absorb the tremendous cost of hiring readers. Moreover, technology not only provides access where there was usually none before; it also makes us dramatically more efficient.

I know from experience that people outside the field don’t realize that giving a blind person a computer and Internet access doesn’t just contribute to equality. It can make the difference between a blind person being able to function versus being barely able to function at all.Adrian Spratt, Brooklyn, New York