Recently, the GRID team used the Olympic games as an opportunity to shine a spotlight on some of the huge range of showcase ICT projects and initiatives catalogued in GRID around the world. There is wide consensus that the London games were a complete triumph and a fantastic demonstration of what can be achieved when hard work, good will and a collaborative spirit come together at a moment in time.
Whilst these games have already accrued almost legendary status, the show is not yet over, as London is currently hosting the XIV Summer Paralympics. With a record number of countries competing at these games, they are proving to be the most exciting and competitive yet. It is clear, that as a platform for demonstrating the best aspects of ICT, the Internet and social media the Olympics has been ground breaking. For the athletes in the Paralympics both the benefits and vulnerabilities that come with the use of ICT are particularly acute. At a time when enormous advances are being made in getting people online, thanks to campaigns such as Go On UK, often it is those with disabilities who are missing out and becoming digitally excluded.
The facts speak for themselves. In the UK, Office for National Statistics data shows that in Q1 of 2012, 4.04 million disabled adults had never used the Internet, a full 34.6% of the registered disabled adults in the country. More revealing, however, is that this figure makes up just under half of those adults who have never used the Internet, despite disabled adults making up a much smaller percentage of the overall population. It follows that individuals with disabilities are approximately three times more likely never to have used the Internet than those with no disability.1
In the U.S. the trend is the same: a recent report by the Pew Research Centre headed by Susannah Fox has found that only 54% of American adults with disabilities use the Internet compared with 81% who do not have disabilities.2
There are several key issues at stake here. The first is that some disabled people can simply find it harder to reach an Internet connection in the first place than non-disabled people. A study by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has argued that this is primarily down to economics: on average disabled people are older, with a lower income and lower levels of employment than the national average. In these circumstances getting a broadband connection into the home becomes much more difficult.3
The second issue relates to website content. Even where people with disabilities have access to the Internet, often the content available is not presented in a way that is accessible to them. For example, visually impaired people or those with learning difficulties may have problems with text-based websites.
What this means in practice for the disabled is exclusion from a host of services which would actually be particularly beneficial to them. For example, online banking, shopping and social networking can help those with limited mobility overcome the physical barriers that those activities would entail in the offline world. The problems of digital exclusion are particularly acute for children, for whom the Internet is a ubiquitous source of communication and social development. In the UK, Stephen Carrick-Davies has produced some pioneering work in this area in his project ‘Munch, Poke, Ping’. Working with children from Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), many of whom often have learning disabilities or mental health problems, he has shown a clear correlation between these vulnerable children, digital exclusion and online risk, often manifested as bullying or harassment.4
So there are significant problems and risks regarding disabled people (particularly children) and ICT. But this is only half the story. As Carrick-Davies is keen to highlight in his report, “it is important we balance the risks and showcase the real positive ways technology can be used to support vulnerable young people”.
What we found, searching through the GRID database and more broadly, was a wealth of government, private and third sector initiatives all working to increase digital inclusion and use ICT to benefit the lives of disabled people.
- In the UK, for example, AbilityNet are helping disabled adults and children use ICT by adapting and adjusting the technology to suit their specific needs. Recently AbilityNet hosted a showcase event entitled ‘Technology 4 Good’ in partnership with BT, where awards were given for the best projects and initiatives to use ICT to help those with disabilities.5
- In the U.S., Verizon has launched a range of features to make their services accessible to those with disabilities, such as Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) and Speech to Speech (STS). A full list can be found here and you can also look at Verizon’s page on GRID here.
- Similarly, the NTIA has provided billions of dollars of grant funding to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program and made provisions for a share of this to be dedicated to providing affordable, accessible broadband services to those with disabilities, or where this is not possible, at the very least upgrade libraries and other public facilities to provide broadband access for the disabled.6
- In Europe, the European Commission has placed improving access for disabled users at the heart of its Digital Agenda for Europe. Part of a wider initiative termed ‘e-inclusion’ this will require businesses to incorporate features which make their sites easily accessible to disabled users, to ensure ‘”no one is left behind” in enjoying the benefits of ICT.7
- Beyond Europe and America, the issue features highly on the ICT agendas of many countries. In the Lebanese Republic, for example, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority has called upon Lebanese ICT organizations and service providers to improve disabled access on their services, by amongst other things, introducing a charter for the rights of disabled persons to telecommunications.8
What these initiatives demonstrate is that whilst there are significant obstacles to overcome to enable those with disabilities and special needs to have easy, safe access to the internet, enormous energies are being directed to improving this situation at a state, private and charitable level.
As the figures demonstrate there is a significant market for accessible ICT products, which will compel businesses and entrepreneurs to seek out marketable solutions. At a time when the Paralympics are showcasing the fantastic feats of disabled athletes, we should reflect on the opportunities that ICT has, when properly deployed, to become a powerful tool to help and empower those with disabilities.
1 http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/rdit2/Internet-access-quarterly-update/2012-q1/stb-Internet-access-quarterly-update-2012-q1.html#tab-Disability–Table-1- (last accessed August 24, 2012)
2 http://www.pewInternet.org/Reports/2011/Disability.aspx (last accessed August 24, 2012)
3 http://www.ntia.doc.gov/reports/2010/ESA_NTIA_US_Broadband_Adoption_Report_11082010.pdf (last accessed August 24, 2012)
4 http://www.carrick-davies.com/downloads/Munch_Poke_Ping_-_E-safety_and_Vulnerable_Young_People_-_Executive_Summary_Findings_and_Recommendations._doc.pdf (last accessed August 24, 2012)
5 http://www.technology4goodawards.org.uk/ (last accessed August 24, 2012)
6 http://www2.ntia.doc.gov/ (last accessed August 24, 2012)
7 http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/einclusion/index_en.htm (last accessed August 24, 2012)
8 http://www.tra.gov.lb/SubPage.aspx?pageid=255 (last accessed August 24, 2012)