Digital exclusion and disability - how does society tackle the divide? (1/2)

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett February 21, 2024
The digital divide is widespread among people with disabilities but tends to have a disproportionate impact on their lives. In the first of this two-part series, we explore just how significant the problem is and why.


Wherever people with disabilities live in the world, the digital divide has a disproportionate impact, hampering their access not just to education and employment, but to life-affirming social activities.

A key problem is that so much of life today is conducted and enabled through technology. This means that those unable to use it for a wide variety of reasons can end up falling by the wayside. John Hughes, Director of Partnerships and Communities at Community Integrated Care, a UK health and social care charity, explains:

Disabled people are often overlooked and under-considered. So, universal things like music, art, entertainment and communication with family and friends are frequently not available to them, which means they live lives of deprivation and isolation. As a result, closing the digital divide is one of the most important leaps we can make in creating an inclusive society for everyone.

But there are big challenges in enabling widespread digital inclusion. The Community Tech Network, a US NGO that promotes digital equity, illustrates the point. Its research indicates that twice as many (38%) adults with disabilities as those (19%) without do not own their own computer. Only 63.8% of over 15s with disabilities say they use the internet at home, work, school or elsewhere compared to 83.4% of adults without disabilities. 

The reality of disabled digital exclusion

However, Hughes is not convinced that a definition of digital exclusion based on access to devices and connectivity is good enough anymore. As he points out:

It’s easy to presume that the digital divide is about access to devices and the internet, but to me, it’s more profound than that. It’s about the gap between access to technology and the fullest benefits it can provide. It’s about income, support levels and whether technologies are accessible in the first place. But there’s currently a real dichotomy between technology being a force for good and people having access to it. How the world communicates and is designed reflects a structural inequity in society.

Angela Matthews, Head of Policy and Research at the Business Disability Forum, a business membership organization that supports disability inclusion, agrees:

The world of social and economic policy prioritizes digitalization so countries can keep up with the rest of the world economy. But there’s a gap between that priority and how disabled people are enabled to keep up with it - and that gap is growing wider. One of the problems is the big divide between assumptions about where disabled people are, and how they actually live their lives. 

As a result, it is important to consider the reasons why disabled people might be digitally excluded in the first place. As Matthews points out:

For some, tech and digitization just aren’t a priority due to the cost-of-living crisis. Their priority is getting by day-to-day, whether that means eating or buying the right equipment to breath properly. Others want to be digitally included but can’t afford to be because access to the internet and devices is so far removed from where they are financially. Still others are willing, but the technology is inaccessible and simply doesn’t cater to their needs. So, we should really be talking about digital divides in the plural.

The situation, in the UK at least, is also not helped by people with disabilities only receiving state support for assistive technology or adaptations if they are either in work or education. But the challenge in employment terms, for example, is that only 53.6% of disabled people actually have a job compared with 82.5% of non-disabled. The result is that affordability is a significant issue. 

Enabling Technology for Life

To try and address the matter, the Business Disability Forum has proposed the introduction of a ‘Technology for Life’ scheme to provide disabled people with access to assistive technology throughout their lives. Although the initiative was mentioned in the UK Government’s Disability Action Plan, which was published on 5 February, there was no commitment to either implement or fund it. 

As a result, the Forum has now approached the Treasury and asked it to invest in a cost-benefit analysis. It is also speaking to various sponsors, although it is still early days. Matthews says:

What’s needed immediately is better provision of skills and technology, so the right people get the right support at the right time. The idea of Technology for Life is that the model develops as the digital world develops so disabled people aren’t left behind. By 2030, five million people across the board won’t have the basic digital skills they require and the consequences of that are huge in economic, employment, social and quality of life terms.

Put another way, the population is experiencing high levels of digital exclusion whether people are disabled or not as a “direct consequence of political lethargy”, according to the governmental Communications and Digital Committee’s ‘Digital exclusion’ report. The upshot is a digital skills shortage that is already costing the economy £63 billion per year. 

Moreover, Matthews believes the situation is “getting worse”, particularly for disabled people:

Technology is moving at such a pace people just can’t keep up with it. But something has to be done or social inequality will widen, and people will be left so far behind that it’ll cost even more to do something about it when the time comes. 

Hughes agrees:

Is it a serious societal priority to use the benefits of digital technology to help people live fully empowered, included lives? Probably not. We’re currently only scratching the surface in terms of what digital technology and connectivity could do to help people feel happier and more fulfilled. So, there’s enormous potential for government, tech companies, social and community organizations to all work together to make a difference here.

The second article in our two-part series exploring the disabled digital divide will look into this potential and what tech companies can do to make a significant dent in the problem.

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