Like most problems disabled people have to face, the problem of digital inclusion, or exclusion, is complex. Those who have a stake in the remedy/ies often don’t grasp the full extent of the complexity. We are left with the problem being addressed in fragments, with little connection between the fragments, and little involvement from the people whose stakes are highest, the disabled technology users. Defining digital inclusion narrowly so it is “doable” may result in inadequate and untenable solutions. Those of us who have worked in this area for many years feel as if we are running on the spot making limited progress.
Last week I attended a meeting about digital inclusion. I experienced some of the above. This is not about criticising people who, like disabled people, have been struggling to gain traction on a wicked problem. But one size of solution won’t fit all, and the problems are compounded by intersectionalities among the groups most digitally excluded.
The barriers to digital inclusion for disabled people are:
Cost – This goes well beyond the cost of the Internet connection. While the cost of assistive tech is nothing like the enormous cost it used to be, it still costs money, even the accessible out-of-the-box tech, like iPhones and iPads. Everything costs something and many disabled people and their families are among the poorest in New Zealand. There is also a constant need to update and upgrade. People are expected to be more responsible for their own personal technology in education and work, never mind everyday life. Technology is an added cost to an already high cost of living with disability. For example, a person may be able to use a regular smart phone, but may need a top-of-the-line model to meet their particular access needs
Access – following on from financial cost is the policy assumption that access to the digital world relates solely to education and work – an outdated view that does not take into account how connected our world is, and how socially isolated many disabled people are. Digital inclusion relates to nearly every facet of 21st century life. Exclusion can create problems as fundamental as establishing identity in formal settings such as banks and government departments.
What’s the best assistive tech for me? – Older disabled people may not have used much digital technology. Families with young disabled children are still struggling to get to grips with their changed lives. Many disabled people are poorly educated and may have limited access to information about technology choices. As in many other areas of disabled people’s lives useful information is hard to find, particularly if your service provider is not focused on digital access, and there are many disabled people with more than one impairment, while others receive little or no disability support service
How do I get the best out of the technology? – Skilled help with assistive technology is hard to find if you are not part of an impairment group with access to specific help. People don’t always know how or who to ask for help.
Do I have the right skills? – Some groups of disabled people may miss out on acquiring good skills using regular technology such as web and other applications, Word, Excel etc. Their education may have been poor, and as adults they have had no access to training using assistive technology in conjunction with regular software and applications.
Compatibility – A person may have the appropriate assistive technology, but connection with the technology in education or workplace settings can pose problems of compatibility. There may be a reluctance to modify either on the part of the employer, or even the IT service provider. I have had personal experience of the latter in a very senior role, and have talked to many other disabled people who have faced similar difficulties, preventing them from doing their job properly, limiting their opportunities and career prospects.
Mainstream research excludes us – Disabled people are often excluded from research projects, either because of an inaccessible methodology and process, or because the researchers don’t know how to contact them or communicate with them. They may be seen as a “different” or “atypical” group, or just too hard. But at 24% of the population they are far from insignificant, even though they are diverse.
Little consultation – Disabled people of all ages need to be closely involved in deciding what technology will work for them, and how to use it. They also need to be included in consulting on and setting “big picture” policy and other decisions made about assistive technology. Involving a few “geeks” and disabled specialists is not enough. While I have seen meetings and forums about transport, employment, equal education, I have never seen an open access digital forum specifically for disabled people.
Technologists, policy-makers and researchers don’t know enough and don’t share or co-ordinate their work – It’s not enough to know about the technologies and their applications. Digital inclusion, and the knowledge to create it requires a more holistic approach, and knowledge sharing. The disability world is complex and intersects with other disadvantaged groups, for example, disabled Maori, disabled parents.
The battle for online accessibility, where the technology can be more important than the end-user experience, is a case in point. While this is possibly true for all user experience, for disabled people it is more critical as there is less choice for information access. The technology should never come before the people.
This is a human rights issue, and the underpinnings for this are little understood by those working in the field. Articles 9 and 21 of the UN Convention on the rights of disabled people are particularly relevant. Accessibility is Outcome 5 of the revised Disability Strategy and has a focus on Universal Design. What this means in practice requires thorough exploration alongside disabled people.
Digital inclusion is now huge. We are expected every day to interact and transact online with banks, insurance, businesses and retailers of all kinds, a variety of government departments, local government, health service providers, travel and entertainment bookings, education and work. There are eftpos terminals, ATMs, self-check-in kiosks, news, entertainment of various kinds and social media to navigate, and the technologies all change and update frequently. New opportunities arise in areas such as the arts. This is all likely to increase. Disabled people will continue to be seriously disadvantaged in many areas of life if digital inclusion is not tackled seriously.