The United States has a digital divide, and it profoundly impacts the 1 in 4 Americans living with disabilities.
In September 2021, a Pew Research poll found that 62% of adults with a disability say that they own a desktop or laptop computer, compared with 81% of adults without a disability. 72% of people with disabilities said that they owned smartphones, compared with 88% of those without a disability. People with disabilities were three times as likely to say they never go online and less likely to report using the internet on a daily basis.
For web developers, content creators, and policymakers, these statistics present some clear questions: Why do people with disabilities use the internet less frequently — and what can we do differently?
People with disabilities are more likely to encounter barriers to internet access
Disabilities can affect socioeconomic status in profound ways, and income disparities can certainly affect internet usage (though as we’ll discuss in a moment, socioeconomic factors aren’t the only consideration). Some statistics to consider:
- In 2017, the labor force participation rate for Americans with disabilities over the age of 16 was 20.1%; non-disabled Americans had a participation rate of 68.6%.
- The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Americans with disabilities had a median income of $20,250 in 2014, compared with $30,469 for those without disabilities.
- According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among people aged 25 or older, 16.4% of Americans with disabilities had completed at least a bachelor’s degree in 2014, compared with 34.6% of Americans with no disability in the same age group.
People with disabilities are less likely to hold full-time jobs due to employer discrimination, education barriers, and for various other reasons — and low income correlates with less access to high-speed internet and up-to-date computer technology.
However, while economic and educational inequality can present barriers to internet access, people with disabilities frequently cite another concern: The internet simply isn’t a friendly place for them.
Most websites have significant accessibility issues
Most developers create content for “ideal" or “typical" users, ignoring the barriers that affect people with long-term, temporary, or situational disabilities. This is an expensive mistake — but unfortunately, the problem is widespread.
The non-profit organization WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind) publishes an annual analysis of the homepages of the top one million websites. In 2021, 97.4% of analyzed web pages failed to meet one or more of the criteria from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA, the consensus standard for digital accessibility. The analyzed websites had an average of 51.4 errors per page.
Accessibility barriers can affect internet users with disabilities in a variety of ways:
- People with vision impairments may use screen readers to access the web. If content creators fail to provide image alternative text (alt text), captions, and transcripts, these users can’t perceive the content.
- Forms and other interactive elements may create issues for people who use keyboards (without a mouse) for navigation. In severe issues, poor keyboard accessibility can make a site completely unusable.
- People with color vision deficiency (color blindness) may be unable to read text that has poor color contrast. In WebAIM’s 2021 analysis, 86% of websites had improper color contrast.
Many of these accessibility issues can be addressed easily. However, if developers and content creators are unaware of the problem, they won’t take steps to address it.
Prioritizing accessibility can improve the internet for everyone
Businesses have strong incentives to embrace digital accessibility. In the United States, websites and mobile apps must be accessible for people with disabilities in most circumstances, per Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
And while many brands adopt accessible design practices to ensure compliance with the ADA and other laws, the business case for accessibility is strong. Well-designed websites work better for everyone — regardless of their abilities — and can reach a much wider audience.
For example, adding captions to a video makes content more useful for people with hearing disabilities, but also helps people who prefer not to listen to audio. Fixing a webpage’s color contrast issues improves text readability for people who are colorblind, but also improves the on-page experience of anyone who browses the site in bright natural light.
Bridging the digital divide won’t be easy, but the barriers that prevent people with disabilities from accessing the internet are fixable. By taking a proactive approach, content creators can play an important role in improving the internet — and offer a better experience to every user.