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The Disability Digital Divide

Page history last edited by Juleane 9 years, 5 months ago



The Disability Digital Divide

Jewels Johnson







Information and communication are essential components of the human experience and activity. We are living in a world of the Information/Internet/Digital Age. Within this revolution and transforming environment a cleavage has formed, “the digital divide” between what are called the “haves” and “have nots,” the “info rich” and “info poor.” Can you imagine living in this same world, but as a person with a disability? The focus of this research wiki project will be to explore living within the Disabled Digital Divide. 


Living Disabled

The Americans with Disabilities Act describes a disabled person "as one with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having an impairment” (ADA, 1990). In 2008, 36.1 million people were characterized as living with a disability or around 12.1 percent of the U.S. population as recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010 and more than half have severe disabilities.  In addition, according to the Economics and Statistics Administration and National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, 14 percent of household heads, that is almost 17 million people had a disability in 2009.


*According to Hunt's article, many of the disabled community view the term handicapped as derogatory saying it originally came from England during a time when disabled persons were were forced to beg on the street and were given a cap as a handout.*  


(1817)  - The American School for the Deaf is founded in Hartford, Connecticut. This is the first school for disabled children anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.

(1860)  - The Gaffaudet Guide and Deaf Mutes' Companion becomes the first publication in the United States aimed at a disabled readership.

(1864)  - The enabling act giving the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and Blind the authority to confer college degrees is signed by President Abraham Lincoln, making it the first college in the world expressly established for people with disabilities. A year later, the institution's blind students are transferred to the Maryland Institution at Baltimore, leaving the Columbia Institution with a student body made up entirely of deaf students. The institution would eventually be renamed Gallaudet College, and then Gallaudet University.

(1883)  - Sir Francis Galton in England coins the term eugenics to describe his pseudo-science of "improving the stock" of humanity. The eugenics movement, taken up by Americans, leads to passage in the

United States of laws to prevent people with various disabilities from moving to this country, marrying, or having children. In many instances, it leads to the institutionalization and forced sterilization of disabled people, including children. Eugenics campaigns against people of color and immigrants lead to passage of "Jim Crow" laws in the South and legislation restricting immigration by southern and eastern Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Jews.

(1947) - The first meeting of the Presidents Committee on National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week is held in Washington, D.C. Its publicity campaigns, coordinated by state and local committees, emphasize the competence of people with disabilities and use movie trailers, billboards, and radio and television ads to convince the public that its "good business to hire the handicapped."

(1954) - The U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka rules that separate schools for black and white children are inherently unequal and unconstitutional. This pivotal decision becomes a catalyst for the African-American civil rights movement, which in turn becomes a major inspiration to the disability rights movement.

(1958) - Gini Laurie becomes editor of the Toomeyville Gazette at the Toomey Pavilion Polio Rehabilitation Center. Eventually renamed the Rehabilitation Gazette, this grassroots publication becomes an early voice for disability rights, independent living and cross-disability organizing, and it features articles by disabled writers on all aspects of the disability experience.


(1964) - The Civil Rights Act is passed, outlawing discrimination on the basis of race in public accommodations and employment, as well as in federally assisted programs. It will become a model for subsequent disability rights legislation.

- Robert H. Weitbrecht invents the "acoustic coupler," forerunner of the telephone modem, enabling teletypewriter messages to be sent via standard telephone lines. This invention makes possible the widespread use of teletypewriters for the deaf (TDD's, now called TTY's), offering deaf and hard-of-hearing people access to the telephone system.


(1973) - Passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973  marks the greatest achievement of the disability rights movement. The act -- particularly Title V and, especially, Section 504 for the first time, confronts discrimination against people with disabilities. Section 504 prohibits programs receiving federal funds from discriminating against "otherwise qualified handicapped" individuals and sparks the formation of "504 workshops" and numerous grassroots organizations. Disability rights activism seizes on the act as a powerful tool and makes the signing of regulations to implement Section 504 a top priority. Litigation arising out of Section 504 will generate such central disability rights concepts as "reasonable modification," "reasonable accommodation," and "undue burden," which will form the framework for subsequent federal law, especially the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

- The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities is organized to advocate for passage of what will become the Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 1975  and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 .


(1984) - The Telecommunications for the Disabled Act mandates telephone access for deaf and hard-of-hearing people at important public places, such as hospitals and police stations, and that all coin-operated phones be hearing aid-compatible by January 1985. It also calls for state subsidies for production and distribution of TDDs (telecommunications devices for the deaf), more commonly referred to as TTYs.


(1988) - The Technology-Related Assistance Act for Individuals with Disabilities (the "Tech Act")  is passed, authorizing federal funding to state projects designed to facilitate access to assistive technology.


 (1990) - The Americans with Disabilities Act is signed by President George Bush on 26 July in a ceremony on the White House lawn  witnessed by thousands of disability rights activists.  The law is the most sweeping disability rights legislation in history, for the first time bringing full legal citizenship to Americans with disabilities.  It mandates that local, state, and federal governments and programs be accessible, that businesses with more than 15 employees make “reasonable accommodations” for disabled workers, that public accommodations such as restaurants and stores make “reasonable modifications” to ensure access for disabled members of the public.  The act also mandates access in public transportation, communication, and in other areas of public life.

(1995) When Billy Broke His Head… and Other Tale of Wonder premiers on PBS.  The film is, for many, a first time introduction to the concept of disability rights and the disability rights movement. 


Billy Golfus, the director of "When Billy Broke His Head...and Other Tale of Wonder shares his experience as a disabled man and how he feels about the treatment of the disabled community.

Note: This table of dates taken from the Connecticut Disability Advocacy Collaborative website: http://www.ct-dac.org/Chronology.pdf. highlights significant events in the disabled community.




Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act is the most significant piece of legislation to impact the disabled community of the United States. ADA has helped to change the focus from medical or social welfare policy to civil rights and equality. The following offers further detailed information:





Within this act lie two core values that are involved in the way Americans have measured quality of life and framed social policy: health and independence. Independence is crucial to the American dream, an ideal of society as a whole; as such, for persons with disabilities this is no different. Poor health in many minds connects to dependence while conversely good health is to independence.  Juxtaposing persons with and without disabilities one finds that those with disabilities have less education, self-esteem, economic power, and connection to the social world. The ADA works to enforce equal treatment by replacing social exclusion and isolation with programs and services. Millions of lives have improved since the ADA's induction notes Hunt in his article "Disability See Progress, but Problems Persist." In addition, he goes on to state that the 2006 U.N. Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requiring parties to promote equal rights and employment for the disabled took place as the result of it. Also, it has served as a framework for other countries that strive to be more "disability friendly" throughout the levels and structures of society. The Digital Rights Fund offers a document detailing the definition of "disability" by nations across the world and international agencies and how the protection they have established for its population. 


Nevertheless, at the time of the induction of the ADA (1990), the Internet was not such an integral part of everyday life as it is today. Therefore, it does not address Internet access  and as such many sites are not designed to be used by those with disabilities.



This photo was chosen to illustrate the devastatingly far reaches of the Digital Divide and how widespread it's effect could be.


Disability Digital Divide(s)

What is or are the Digital Divide(s)? In an interview with the Echo Chamber Project (2006), Andy Carvin of the Digital Divide Network describes this term/issue as "a gap that exists between communities in terms of (1) who has access to the Internet, (2) who has the skills to use it, (3) and who has availability of content and the ability to produce content that is relevant to their communities' lives." (* I apologize, but I can no longer reach this server)


Living with a disability or disabilities, one is not limited to one barrier, but may encounter several in attempting to access information over the Internet or using digital technology. In other words there are digital divides as Simpson (2009) describes including: "intellectual, visual, and hearing abilities; change as a result of aging, complications from accidents and/or multiple disabilities; differences in fine motor skills and ability to reach or approach equipment; and one's income and access to emergency information" (no page #). She calls these "fracture lines" falling in four areas: telephony, television, the Internet, and information and displays this in the table below:


Table 1. Digital Divide Disability Fracture Lines





Electronic & Information Technology



Phone-like devices



Billing, customer service & product materials

TV “set”


Remote controls


Billing customer service & product materials


User interface




Billing, customer service & product materials

Faxes, copiers, voting machines, ATMS, info kiosks, computers, any electronic appliance

Billing, customer service & product materials

Intellectual disability





Vision disability





Hearing disability





Gross motor ability limitation





Fine motor limitation





Aging, multiple disability, limitations due to accident





Low and very low income





Independent access to emergency information





Note: X indicates where a means of accessibility and usability must occur for there to be inclusive information and communications technology

This table shows the many digital divides or how Simpson terms here "fracture lines" in regards to those with disabilities.



Fox (2011) delivers her report in The Pew Internet and American Life Project stating that 2% of American adults indicate that they have a disability or illness that hinders or causes them to struggle when using the Internet. This information is based on a survey that was conducted via telephone interviews by Princeton Survey Research Associates International between August 9 and September 13, 2010, among a sample of 3,001 adults, ages 18 and older. The survey lists that 54% of adults living with a disability use the Internet and 41% of adults with a disability have broadband at home, as compared to 81% of adults who use the Internet at home and 69% of adults use broadband who do not have a disability. 


The figure below gives a depiction of the use of broadband Internet as of October 2010 according to the Current Population Study data acquired by the U.S. Department of Commerce: National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Image retrieved from page 15 Digital Nation: Expanding Internet Usage depicting the use of broadband internet by individuals with different types of disabilities. This figure shows that those that are deaf or hard of hearing use broadband Internet more so than those living with other disabilities; this is the highest percentage only falling second to those that list themselves as not having a disability.



In addition to this, the following tables from the U.S. Census Bureau illustrate why those based on disability status do not have broadband Internet access as characterized by the reasoning behind being an Internet non-users and households not using the Internet outside of home.

The first image retrieved from page 33 of Exploring the Digital NationTable 20, shows that the main reasons disabled persons do not use the Internet is that they are not interested in doing so or do not believe they need it and the second being that they do not have a computer or if they do it is not sufficient. The second image, Table 21, shows that the belief that, first and foremost, the internet is too expensive, having an insufficient computer, or disinterest are the main reasons why disabled persons do not use the Internet outside their homes.




Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), as Vicente and Lopez (2010) point out, plays a crucial role in daily life "affecting how one works, learns, shops, recreates, and communicates with others" (pg. 49). However, it goes without saying that the ICT industry has not gone above and beyond to appeal to or involve the interests of the disabled community. Vicente and Lopez (2010) indicate these problems involve:

  • Website compatibility - visually impaired conscious computers provide assistive assistance through convert text into audio output 
  • E-Commerce sites - "checkout" button may not be labeled and are therefore lost to screen readers 
  • Captcha - a security feature and very few websites offer an audio counterpart
  • Fixed font sizes and colors
  • The conventional computer mouse and new generation small key boards hinder those that have dexterity impairment(s)  
  • Multimedia content without captions
  • Interactive voice-response hinders those with hearing impairments 
  • Mobile phones, music players, graphical interfaces, tactile inputs hinder those with visual and/or dexterity impairments
  • Speed and versatility of the internet may confuse those with cognitive impairments 

The industry fears that costs will rise with the making services accessible for all customers and would affect competition and the development of new technologies. Equipment is much more expensive as a result of the added cost associated with disabilities of all types. This proves to be a hindrance as shared in an interview (2011) between Joe Moe of American Public Media and Tom Foley of the World Institute on Disability. When asked what barriers disabled persons face, Foley, a blind man said it all comes down to economics. Vicente and Lopez (2010) give these sobering instances: 

  • A fixed phone with acoustic amplification and large keys costs twice as much as the regular phone
  • Screen reader programs for blind, visually impaired, or learning disabled individuals can cost more than $1,000 dollars
  • Many upgrades cost hundreds of dollars

Socio-economic disadvantages prevent purchasing, accessing, or using ICT. One can see how poverty and disability foster a relationship and cause a vicious cycle. As Vicente and Lopez (2010) so simply state: "a disability often results in poverty, and conversely, living in poverty increases the likelihood of acquiring a disability" (pg. 50). (An estimated number of 80% of the disabled population live in poverty). Benefits such as buying, banking, getting news, distance learning, or job seeking, all done on the internet, may not be available and thus further widen these divides. The Information/Internet/Digital age is an ever-changing landscape that is already difficult to keep up without the disadvantage of having some form of impairment or disability.



There is some indication that we are developing and changing as a society regarding our concern and attention toward those with disabilities. The term usability means that (1) information should be accessible despite physical, sensory or cognitive user disabilities, work constraints, or technological barriers and (2) understandable and easy to navigate within and between pages. Also, according to Usablenet (an organization working with companies and how they connect with their clients online to ensure that people such as those with disabilities are also considered) an accessible Web page can be perceived, navigated, utilized (with keyboard or devices other than mice) and easily understood in attention-poor situations. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) developed a software tool "Bobby" a free service that provided help to web designers to check whether products were compatible with the standards set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium). However, this service no longer exists in its original fashion, IBM bought out this resource and now markets it as a product, the IBM Rational Policy Tester Accessibility Edition.


This is a screen grab from a demo introducing the IBM Rational Policy Tester, detailing how companies can best serve their clients by using this product and (time spot 31/42).



Greater Context

Steyaert and Gould  (2009) reconsider the definition of "digital age" arguing that "access to technology alone is but a very rudimentary indicator of actually making use of digital opportunities or digital/social exclusion" (pg. 740). The digital divide is described as covering a number of levels from geo-political to household and furthermore global landscape as only 1.5 billion people have access around 22% of the entire world's population which is of over 6 billion people. There are huge disparities between strong and weak economic nations as well as cities and rural areas. Steyaert and Gould (2009) state that there are seven socio-demographic fault lines of significance: income, educational level, gender, age, employment status, ethnicity, and type of household. Furthermore, "access to the internet varies, as can be expected: the higher the household income, or the younger, or the more educated, or the more Western ethnicity, the more they have the internet" (pg. 743-44). To ask if whether the divide is widening or narrowing is somewhat difficult to assess. Countries continue to improve or weaken in connecting their citizens. The speed of change and proliferation of access largely depends on the rate in which old technology remains a valid option and is no longer competitive in the market and is replaced with new technology.


What's Going on Now?

National Council on Disability

NCD is an independent federal agency of 15 members that works with the top of the U.S. government: the President, Congress, and Senate, giving advice in policy, programs, practices, and procedures in order to ensure persons with disabilities are being treated equally. In accordance to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973,  NCD must submit a Progress Report (2009) "assessing the status of the nation in achieving policies that guarantee equal opportunity for all individuals with disabilities and that empower individuals with disabilities to achieve economic self-sufficiency, independent living, and inclusion and integration into all aspects of society" (pg. 1). The NCD highlights the following points in issues of technology: access to the internet, assistive technology, and digital technology. Section 508 Web Accessibility and the World Wide Web Consortium Web standards demonstrate that the U.S. is making a conscious effort to combat accessibility concerns.  Assistive Technology or AT includes "tools, resources, and technology to help increase independence, improve personal productivity, and enhance quality of life...the availability of AT makes it possible to participate in education, employment, recreation, government services, and commerce, particularly on the Internet" (pg. 53). Digital media may improve access, but also may prove to be a challenge. Factors such as flexibility and user control afford users great possibilities, but also one must consider set design, remote control design, and transmission, consumer education and broadcaster development in determining the success of these devices. 



Progress Made

American Disabilities Act and the Internet - 10 years ago and Present day 

On October 21, 2002, the ADA took a critical blow with the ruling of U.S. District Judge Patricia Steinz. Robert Gumson, a blind man, filed a lawsuit against Southwest Airlines requesting that they redesign their website for blind people to more easily navigate. Despite his owning a screen reader with a voice synthesizer he asked that instead of using graphics, to use text as an alternative. The case was dismissed. Steinz affirmed that the ADA applied only to physical spaces, not the Internet. "To expand the ADA to cover virtual spaces would be to create new rights without well-defined standards...The plain and unambiguous language of the statute and relevant regulations does not include Internet Web sites." (http://news.cnet.com/2100-1023-962761.htmlHowever, there are new possibilities as Jones (2010) points out, a shift to the "nexus" approach in National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corporation, "requiring a connection between Internet services and the physical place in order to present an actionable ADA claim, limiting the application if the ADA to online retailers." Nonetheless, the Department of Justice believes that the ADA does cover and require Internet accessibility.



There's Hope After All

A Young Boy's Story - Use of Today's Technology

A modern marvel, the iPad, has proven to work wonders as seen in the life of 7 year old, Owen Cain. He is a young boy that depends on a respirator and struggles to make even slight movements. He relies on his nurses, family, and care in order to live day to day. “Over the years, his parents tried several computerized communications contraptions to give him an escape from his disability, but the iPad was the first that worked on the first try.”

His mother shared how most of Owen's life they spent trying to keep him alive and now they owe him more than that. Since its arrival, the iPad has been found to be a therapeutic tool for people with disabilities of all kinds. Owen can read books, write, speak, play guitar, and do math by his using the iPad. Undoubtedly, revolutionary changes are taking place within the digital age and advancement bridging and closing the gaps of the digital divide.






*Dobransky, K. & Hargittai, E. (2006). The disability divide in internet access and use. Information, Communication and Society. 9(3), 313-334. Retrieved from: http://digitalinclusion.typepad.com/digital_inclusion/Documentos/dobransky-hargittai-disabilitydivide.pdf


Hager, E. B. (2010, October 29). Ipad a therapeutic marvel for disabled people . The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/nyregion/31owen.html?scp=1&sq=owen+cain+ipad&st=nyt


*Harrison, T. C. (2002). Has the americans with disabilities act made a difference? A policy analysis of quality of life in the post-americans with disabilities act era. Policy, Politics, & Nursing Practice,3(4), 333-347. doi:10.1177/152715402237446 


Hunt, A. (2010, July 25). Disabled see progress, but problems persist. The New York Times, Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/26/us/26iht-letter.html


Jones, N. L. (2010, July 22). The americans with disabilities act: application to the internet. Congress Research Service. Retrieved from: http://www.nacua.org/documents/ADAInternet.pdf


Miller, S. H. (2003, May 27) Today's digital divide in the united states: inclusion of individuals with disabilities" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Marriott Hotel, San Diego, CA Online <.PDF>.2009-05-26 Retrieved from: http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p112095_index.html


Moe, J. (2011, January 24). What are the barriers to the internet for people with disabilities? [Online Media Interview]. Retrieved from American Public Media website: http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/01/24/tech-report-barriers-to-the-internet/


National Council on Disability. (2009, March 31). National disability policy: a progress report the vocational rehabilitation act: transition outcomes and effects. Retrieved from the National Council on Disability Newsroom via NCD Publications Database: http://www.ncd.gov/newsroom/publications/2009/Progress_Report_HTML/NCD_Progress_Report.html


National Telecommunications and Information Administration. (2011, February). Digital nation: expanding internet usage.Retrieved from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration via NTIA databasehttp://www.ntia.doc.gov/reports/2011/NTIA_Internet_Use_Report_February_2011.pdf


*Simpson, J. (2009, Winter). Inclusive information and communication technologies for people with disabilities. Disability Studies Quarterly,  29(1). Retrieved from: http://www.dsq-sds.org/article/view/167/167


*Steyaert, J., Gould, N. (2009, February 23). Social work and the changing face of the digital divide. British Journal of Social Work, 740-753. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcp022 


U.S. Department of Commerce. (2010, November). Exploring the digital nation: home broadband internet adoption in the united states. Retrieved from National Telecommunication and Information Administrations Publications and Reports page via NTIA database: http://www.ntia.doc.gov/reports/2010/ESA_NTIA_US_Broadband_Adoption_Report_11082010.pdf


*Vicente, M. & López, A. (2010). A multidimensional analysis of the disability digital divide: some evidence for internet use. The Information Society: An International Journal26(1), 48-64. doi:10.1080/01615440903423245



Pew Internet and American Life Study

Fox, S. (2011, January 21). Americans living with disability and their technology profile. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from Pew Internet and American Life Project website: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Disability.aspx




Bransom, A. (2010, July 22). Celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. [Photo image]. Retrieved from: http://blog.mcmobilitysystems.com/mobility-news/bid/27225/Celebrate-the-20th-Anniversary-of-the-Americans-with-Disabilities-Act


Connecticut Disability Advocacy Collaborative (2009). Chronology of the Disabilities Movement. Retrieved from: http://www.ct-dac.org/advocacy.htm


First Meditation Corporation. (2008, October 16). President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008. [Photo image]. Retrieved from: http://www.firstmediation.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/signing-of-the-ada.jpg


Hashmi, S. (2010, December 19). Digital Divide is a poor choice of words[Photo Image]. Retrieved from: http://buzzfreezone.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/digital-divide-is-a-poor-choice-of-words/


Matheson, R. (2010, July 07). Court Clears Way for FCEs in ADA cases - Column by Roy Matheson. [Photo image]. Retrieved from: http://blog.roymatheson.com/blog/?Tag=americans%20with%20disabilities%20act


McCullagh, D. (2002, October 21). Judge: Disabilities Act doesn't cover Web. CNET News. Retrieved from: http://news.cnet.com/2100-1023-962761.html


National Council on Disability (n.d.). What is NCD? Retrieved from: http://www.ncd.gov/faqs.htm


Society for Human Resource Management (2010, July 9). Has the Americans with Disabilities Act Made a Difference? Retrieved from: http://www.shrm.org/hrdisciplines/Diversity/Articles/Pages/HastheADAMadeaDifference.aspx



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