Did you know that approximately 2.6 billion people worldwide lack internet access? It’s a prime example of the digital divide, where individuals without reliable internet access miss out on important opportunities like remote work, online education, access to digital resources, telehealth, and staying connected with each other. Having access to online spaces is absolutely essential for full participation in everyday life. In a world where digital access is more important than ever, it’s vital to close this gap that affects such a large number of people.

In this blog, we’ll unpack the various thoughts and conversations occurring around digital access, we’ll investigate the barriers, and identify some of the ways we can make efforts to close the digital divide. 

What is digital access?

Digital access refers to the ability of individuals or groups to access and effectively utilize digital technologies and resources. This encompasses various aspects, including access to the internet, computers, smartphones, software, and digital services.

Many of us benefit from a level of convenience where many things are just a click away. After all, so much of what we do, whether it’s learning, working, connecting with others, or accessing essential services, happens online. But for the billions of people excluded from online spaces, the opportunities available to others are locked away. This exclusion is known as the “digital divide.”

What is the digital divide?

The idea of the digital divide started in the U.S. in the 1990s and often relates to social and information inequalities. It describes the gap between those who have access to technology like computers and the internet and those who don’t. The term is used to talk about differences in who can easily get information and communicate online.

However, the term “digital divide” has led to some misunderstandings. Often, it’s perceived simply as a binary distinction between those who have internet access and those who don’t. But, in reality, the issue is far more complex. For instance, there are many factors contributing to the digital divide. It isn’t just about access. Many people may have basic access but face limitations due to slow connection speeds, unaffordable data plans, or outdated devices. It’s a multifaceted problem requiring different solutions because, even when a person is online, barriers such as digital literacy, language differences, and accessibility challenges can prevent people from fully benefiting from the digital world.

Who is likely to experience digital exclusion?

The people who often find themselves excluded from the digital world are typically from marginalized communities. This can include low-income individuals, rural populations, elderly individuals, people with disabilities, and some minority groups. Certain groups of the population are at a higher risk of being digitally excluded  than others. 

For the purpose of this blog, we’ll focus primarily on addressing the challenges faced by people with disabilities in accessing digital resources and services. 

Digital inclusion and the second-level divide

Hargittai’s concept of the “second-level divide” sheds light on this. It highlights that digital inequality extends beyond mere access for everyone, including people with disabilities. Sure, physical access is crucial, but there’s a whole other layer of challenges that come into play once individuals start integrating digital technology into their daily lives.

Van Dijk’s idea of the “deepening divide” further goes further in this understanding, highlighting that digital hurdles don’t disappear once physical access is secured. For people with disabilities,  for example, this means facing issues like inaccessible digital content and services, lack of assistive technology, and inadequate support for specific needs.

Imagine logging onto a website but finding it impossible to navigate with a screen reader if you’re blind or that the font size is too small to read if you have low vision. These barriers limit their access to information and services, contributing to exclusion. They illustrate the daily struggles that people with disabilities face when trying to access digital content and services. For more details on these barriers and how to address them, check out our comprehensive guide on digital accessibility.

When it comes to digital inclusion for people with disabilities, the conversation is more than just getting users online. It’s about addressing the barriers they encounter once they’re connected, ensuring that digital spaces are designed to be navigable and usable for everyone.

Digital equity: the current status of the digital divide

On November 15, 2021, President Biden enacted the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, popularly referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. This significant legislation allocates a historic $65 billion to help close the digital divide and ensure that all Americans can access affordable, dependable, high-speed internet.

In the UK, however, efforts toward digital inclusion have faced sharp criticism. The House of Lords noted that while the government claims to have goals for digital access, it lacks a credible strategy to address digital exclusion, a growing issue as essential services continue to shift online. With 1.7 million households lacking internet access and up to a million cutting back due to high costs, the problem is glaring. 

More than 2.4 million people struggle with basic online tasks, and 5 million employed adults can’t complete digital work. This gap in digital skills is predicted to widen by 2030, affecting both wellbeing and economic growth.

Despite past initiatives, the ever-changing digital landscape demands attention. Although the government has aspirations for digital inclusion, its current strategy is outdated and lacks effective interventions. A refreshed approach is required, driven by strong leadership and focused on closing the digital divide to ensure everyone can access essential online resources and opportunities.

Bridging the global digital divide

The challenges to address the digital divide only intensify as we extend our focus to developing countries. 

A 2021 United Nations report indicates that forty-six of the least developed countries encounter major challenges with  digital connectivity. For example, in South Sudan, only 7% of the population has access to electricity, and in Chad, that figure is just 8%. Such limitations in infrastructure and digital access not only prevent these nations from achieving digital equity but also significantly impede the progress of modern human rights.

Digital spaces are the arenas where critical activities occur, yet not everyone has access to these platforms or receives equitable treatment within them. It’s critical to dismantle these barriers to ensure inclusive access for all. A strong starting point is enhancing digital accessibility, so that digital tools and information are within reach for every citizen.

Driving equal access to technology: where to start

Tackling the digital challenges when people with disabilities are online is a daunting challenge. Before we can offer targeted solutions, we need to understand the barriers. There are concrete steps we can take to move toward more equitable access to technology:

1. Missing alt text: Images without descriptive alt text can leave visually impaired users, who rely on screen readers, guessing about the context or meaning of a visual element. This can hinder their understanding of critical content or navigation options.

2. Mouse-only navigation: Websites designed only for mouse interaction can be difficult or impossible for those with motor impairments. Without keyboard shortcuts or logical tab ordering, users can’t efficiently navigate menus or fill out forms.

3. Low contrast and small font sizes: Text that blends into the background due to poor contrast, or text that’s too small, can make it nearly impossible for users with vision impairments or color blindness to read content or find the right buttons.

4. No closed captioning or transcripts: Videos or audio content without closed captions or transcripts exclude deaf or hard-of-hearing users from accessing important information. This also applies to live webinars or meetings without real-time captioning.

5. Inconsistent layouts: Websites with inconsistent layouts can confuse users with cognitive disabilities. If navigation menus change location or the style of buttons varies across pages, these users may find it hard to locate features or content.

6. Non-descriptive links: Generic link text like “click here” or “read more” provides no context to users relying on screen readers. They won’t know what content the link leads to, making navigation less intuitive.

7. Unlabeled form fields: Forms without proper labels or field instructions can confuse users who can’t visually discern the purpose of a particular field, especially when combined with poor error messages.

Addressing these barriers by following inclusive design principles can significantly enhance the usability of digital platforms for all individuals, ensuring everyone can participate fully in the online world. After laying out the foundational steps to drive equal access to technology, it’s important to highlight tools and resources that can help organizations on this journey. One such resource is UserWay, a leading organization dedicated to making the digital world accessible to everyone.

Userway: driving digital access for all

How can you help build an accessible internet for all? As you navigate the journey towards digital access, starting with a manual audit is a good first port of call. These audits are the gold standard for verifying accessibility levels and ensuring compliance with local regulations. Our high quality audits are designed to pinpoint potential issues to guide you to creating a roadmap for improvement. Even if you just want to know how much you source on digital access, take the proactive step today to boost accessibility on your website today. Book a UserWay audit.

FAQs

How does the digital divide affect people with disabilities?

The digital divide often limits access to assistive technology, making it harder for people with disabilities to access essential online resources.

What are common barriers to digital accessibility for people with disabilities?

Inaccessible web design, lack of assistive technology, and insufficient digital literacy training are common barriers.

How can technology help bridge the digital divide for people with disabilities?

Inclusive design and affordable assistive devices can empower people with disabilities to engage more fully in the digital world.