Digital accessibility—the extent to which all individuals can access digital content and technology—is paramount in today’s world. Digital content and interfaces help enable people with disabilities to access information, services, and other resources. And as the world becomes more connected, accessibility becomes even more significant in a global context.
So what are the current challenges and opportunities associated with global digital accessibility, and what best practices and success stories can be gleaned from them?
The current state of global digital accessibility
We live in an age where digital networks transcend borders, but highly diverse communities worldwide have different infrastructures, resources, and access to digital technology. And so, unequal access to technology and digital resources remains a major factor in global digital accessibility.
According to the World Health Organization, there are approximately one billion people with disabilities in the global population. Data from the International Telecommunication Union’s 2022 report on internet use shows that about 66% of people worldwide use the internet. Still, there are clear disparities when it comes to who has access. Only 26% of low-income individuals and 36% of individuals in the least developed and landlocked developing countries are online.
Statista reports that, in 2019, 59.6% of persons in the United States with a disability had internet access, compared to 78.5% of people without a disability. Considering that the Americas comprise one of the most connected regions in the world, and most people with disability live in low-income and middle-income countries, we can see how this disparity could become more extreme in certain regions.
There is still a long way to go to achieve digital accessibility.
Major challenges in achieving digital accessibility
So what is standing in the way of making digital accessibility more of a global reality? As with most things, multiple factors are slowing down progress.
While awareness has improved over the years, there is still a lot to be done regarding education. Even business owners and content creators who know the importance of accessibility may not have all the information they need to execute a digital accessibility plan. And while standards and resources for implementing digital accessibility exist, they are often worded for designers and developers and may not be easy for everyone to understand and use.
Systemic issues such as economic barriers, poor infrastructure, and incompatible technology pose challenges. Persons with disability are more likely to face financial insecurity, meaning that internet service and digital devices may not be affordable. In some places — such as rural or remote areas — the infrastructure needed to provide reliable access to digital services may not exist.
And even when access to services and devices is not an issue, not all hardware and software are compatible with assistive technologies.
Policy and cultural attitudes also need improvement, which adds to these challenges. People with disabilities are frequently seen as disadvantaged and less capable. This attitude can lead to discriminatory practices, even if not intentional.
For example, people may advocate for financial support benefits and dismiss the need for equal access to digital resources. As a result, people with disabilities may not have equal opportunities to participate in society and independently access basic needs and services.
And while laws exist to protect the rights of people with disabilities, they differ from one country to the next, do not exist everywhere, and do not necessarily address digital accessibility. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) lists 40 nations with policies addressing digital accessibility.
But that only accounts for about 20% of nations today. Though it would be great if we could make progress through cultural shifts alone, without laws, many companies and organizations will not have enough of an incentive to make their digital content and services accessible.
Opportunities for improving digital accessibility worldwide
Though the challenges are genuine, things can still improve. As our world becomes more connected, global initiatives and exchanges can help make digital accessibility more of an international reality.
Goal number nine focuses on building infrastructure, fostering inclusivity, and encouraging innovation. Improved infrastructure will help address inequalities in access to network technology. Inclusivity requires not excluding people with disabilities from using digital resources to participate in society, and being inclusive will also help spark innovation.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) exist to unite nations in pursuit of a better world for all. Goal number 10 is to reduce inequalities both within and among countries. Inaccessible digital resources result in unequal access that can impact the quality of life, so failing to improve digital accessibility worldwide could impede progress toward this goal.
Globally-recognized standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) can also help harmonize policies and encourage more governments to establish laws to protect rights to access. And the closer we get to a single point of truth, the easier it will be to make digital accessibility the global norm.
The current state of global digital accessibility may be one of inequality and disparity, but progress is happening, and there’s plenty of room for more change. With continued collaborative advocacy and action, a world where people with disabilities have equal access to digital resources designed and developed to meet their needs doesn’t have to be out of reach.