Disabled people far less likely to have Internet access: survey

The Internet may be a world without walls, but it certainly has barriers.

A study released on Friday by the Pew Institute revealed that only 54 per cent of disabled Americans go online, compared to 81 per cent of Americans without disabilities. Hampered by factors such as income, education, and the specifics of their disabilities, the approximately six million Americans with disabilities are finding themselves shut out of a key provider of social and economic opportunities.

From the CBC:

The centre surveyed 3,000 Americans by phone and found that of those with disabilities, 46 per cent live with an annual household income of less than $30,000 US, while almost 60 per cent are 50 years old or older, creating financial and generational roadblocks to active web use among adults who are disabled.

The survey helps give insight into a potential extension of the Americans with Disabilities Act which could soon require certain websites to meet accessibility standards.

Similar laws and regulations were put in place last year by the Ontario provincial government to promote accessibility. The CBC reported at the time that critics were voicing concerns that the adoption of new standards would be too gradual and the lack of enforcement would limit its effectiveness.

In November 2010, Donna Jodhan successfully sued the Canadian government because a job application page was not accessible to the blind. The decision is now being appealed, with defence lawyers arguing that she could have applied by phone or in person.

We consider our North American society to be one of equality — where everyone gets a fair shake at justice, self-expression and economic opportunities. But to see the disabled shut out of what has become an increasingly important facet of modern life is disheartening. It exposes a great hypocrisy in our society, or at least a lack of progress towards ideals we hold dear.

In today’s world, the Internet is obviously an important part of many jobs, and even if a job doesn’t require Internet usage, more and more employers are posting job opportunities online only. And if a disabled person is unable to access those jobs, the poverty becomes an inescapable cycle.

Perhaps more distressing is what the absence of the Internet as a tool for communication means. Many disabled people experience isolation and loneliness in their daily lives. Reaching out and talking to someone, in any way, could be a big help in alleviating those feelings, and the Internet could be the way to facilitate that communication.

No one wants to be considered a burden or a drain on society. But if the disabled are able to access the Internet in the numbers that mainstream North Americans do, I’m sure they will become more self-sufficient. And who knows, maybe they will change our perceptions of what disabled people can do.