There are an estimated one billion people in the world who experience disability in some form. That is 15% of the global population with a greater prevalence of disability appearing in developing nations. The coronavirus pandemic has brought a new awareness of this issue as everyone has now been forced into situations where restricted access curtails the ability to fully participate in daily activity, circumstances people with disabilities have dealt without throughout their lives. This greater attention creates a moment in time when significant change may be possible. Alternatively, if the disabled community is not included in new remote initiatives, people with disabilities may be left further behind.
Our daily lives are already increasingly dependent upon digital access. The short-term limitations imposed by lack of access to websites and apps are readily apparent. Core daily activities – work, shopping, banking, entertainment – are made more difficult without widespread remote accessibility. The long-term positive impacts of enhanced digital accessibility are not so obvious. Here are some of the areas where improved digital accessibility can make a meaningful long-term difference.
Children with disabilities face discrimination and are too-often in a cycle of deprivation and poverty. Education is a key in breaking these patterns for everyone but certainly to a greater extent for children with disabilities who typically start school later than others and are also less likely to move on to secondary school. The reasons for this are many including basic stigma, a lack of understanding of the needs of children with disabilities, inadequate teacher training and a lack of learning resources.
Technological tools have the potential for democratizing access to education for all. New online teaching and learning tools and videos are rapidly being developed and implemented to make the talents and skills of the most effective teachers readily available around the world. Enhanced remote access can play a critical role in efforts to improve education for students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).
Education is one of the most powerful instruments of change and a precursor to long-term employment opportunities and economic growth. Providing children with disabilities full access, including digital access, to all educational opportunities available to others will have a lifelong impact on learning and overall achievement and will drastically improve lives.
Employment and wealth creation
People with disabilities are employed about one-third as frequently as the individuals without disabilities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report: Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics—2020 (PDF). In addition to these lower rates of employment, people with disabilities also secure less full-time employment than do those without disabilities; approximately 64% of employed people with disabilities hold full-time jobs, compared to over 80% of employees without disabilities.
The pandemic has dramatically illustrated the importance of working remotely and conversely the adverse impact upon those who don’t have this luxury. People with disabilities are historically far less able to take advantage of remote opportunities. Today, the ability to work remotely has assumed a much more significant role and it is unlikely that we will ever return completely to our pre-pandemic brick and mortar work environment.
The expanded digital workplace is suddenly being touted as a vehicle allowing people to do their best work (PDF). This digital transformation is viewed as a means to move an organization forward in a number of positive directions: "hyper-connected teams, enhanced employee experiences, increased workforce engagement, and improved efficiency and productivity." These new opportunities generated by an increased focus upon remote capabilities raise the ante for people with disabilities. On the one hand, increased overall awareness of the challenges people with disabilities have faced for decades can increase the commitment to improve digital access for this group. To the extent this opportunity is not seized, however, people with disabilities could find themselves even more segregated from opportunities for meaningful full employment and economic growth.
Societal inclusion and civic participation
While the downside of being left out of the "new" remote revolution is real, the potential for enhanced digital accessibility to truly bring people with disabilities fully into this new world and promote social inclusion is enormous.
Interestingly, twenty years ago, people with disabilities with ready access to the internet noted greater benefits in some areas than the general population:
Adults with disabilities in 2000 were more likely to believe that the Internet improved the quality of their lives (48% to 27%), made them better informed about the world (52% to 39%), helped them meet people with similar interests and experiences (42% to 30%), and gave them more connections to the world (44% to 38%) than the general population.
And yet, during the past two decades, the internet has not produced the promised potential for people with disabilities. Complete “disability inclusion," the goal of assuring that all people have similar opportunities to participate in society to the best of their abilities, remains elusive. Everyday activities such as availing oneself of public resources like transportation or libraries, receiving quality healthcare and cultivating robust relationships are all critical aspects of disability inclusion. They're also examples of areas where digital accessibility plays a key role in determining whether people with disabilities will realize and be able to exercise their full civil rights.
The pandemic has in many ways brought us to a crossroads in determining how best to promote technology to enhance digital access and reduce barriers that people with disabilities encounter every day. Our new focus can allow people with disabilities “to participate and enjoy the benefits of the digital society, with the same access to information as everyone else”. It is clear that the world will rely more and more on remote technology even as the pandemic subsides. If we don’t take advantage of this moment to focus on enhancing access, people with disabilities could be left even further isolated in our post pandemic world.