The Office of National Statistics issues an Internet Quarterly Update. The Summary from Internet Access – Households and Individuals, released 7th August, begins with the sentence ‘The Internet has changed the way people go about their daily lives.’ Well, not everyone although the point was tipped some time ago. ONS tell us 22 million households (84%) have Internet access this year. These statistics are not lying, they’re just not telling the whole truth. Apart from the 16% which don’t, access does not always equate with effective use. Digital divides remain. They’re getting deeper as the prerequisite learning curves get steeper and this inaccessibility is also invisible thereby silenced more than ever before.
This week the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) announced the Empathy and Trust In Communicating ONline (EMoTICON) funds. The University of Lincoln will manage CuRAtOR (Challenging online feaR And OtheRing), a £750,000 project exploring social media and discrimination. As well as CuRAtOR, UoL will feed into Loneliness in the digital age (LIDA) led by Loughborough. Up to £3.7 million pounds was available under a cross-council Global Uncertainties, Digital Economy and Connected Communities Programme.
Also this week the crowd-funding platform Zequs launched a new appeal from UCANDOIT, a charity teaching people with disabilities to use computers with focus on the Internet and email. For examples of their work visit the UCanDoIT YouTube channel. Their appeal for public donations is called Getting People with Disabilities Online and Surfing. It aims to raise £5000 by 29th September and at the time of writing still has £4970 to go.
It’s clear from the ONS Survey, people with disabilities are one of the most discriminated against sections of the population when it comes to internet access.
The 3.5 million disabled adults who had never used the Internet represented 30% of the adult population who were disabled. Of those adults who reported no disability, 7% (3.0 million adults) had never used the Internet. (Internet Access Quarterly Update, 2014:5)
In 2010 the Single Equality Act replaced the Disability Discrimination Act, making it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of eight protected characteristics including disability. It also broadened definitions of discriminatory behaviours to improve and extend protection. Individuals with disabilities, in particular users of assistive technologies, are among those excluded from equitable internet access yet their digital discrimination is rarely discussed and even more rarely addressed. The disparity between research into internet use compared to tackling digital exclusion is clear and itself serves to widen and deepen those increasingly invisible digital divides.
The Oxford Internet Institute world usage map shows the dominance of google. We’d all be shocked to see our online profiles. Google makes Orwell’s Big Brother look simplistic. Like digital exclusion, no one talks enough about data protection and it’s probably too late. The damage is done. The Oxford Internet Institute’s Cultures of the Internet report suggests more than half of British people use the Internet ‘without enthusiasm’. They go online because they have to rather than choose to, reporting problems with privacy, frustration and time wastage with a decrease in the usage of social networking sites.
A government with Digital First policy and practice should take notice. Multiple public and private agendas drive us online yet an Office of National Statistics (ONS) report shows over 7 million people have no internet and 16 million lack the skills and confidence for effective use. Digital exclusion has many levels from disconnection to disinterest. The primary issue with exclusion is it’s inherently invisible. Exclusion from digital platforms for discussion and debate makes you voiceless. Powerless. The silence is increasing. Research data is consistent. The ONS say of the 7.1 million people offline, the elderly and disabled are least likely to be connected with 3.7 million adults with a disability having no internet access. Barriers to access for users of assistive technology remain highest of all. Yet society has the technology. The latest SCOPE report Enabling Technology shows what is possible, but government enthusiasm and allocation of resources to make it happen are invisible too. Google domination is not complete but for all the wrong reasons.
The Cultures of the Internet press release contains the worrying suggestion digital exclusion is self imposed. ‘In the past, academics studying the internet tended to focus on the digital divide, examining why certain people did not go online: whether it was to do with choice or lack of access. This study shows that a small percentage of the population (18%) still have not used the internet and it suggests that most non-users have made the choice that it is not for them.’
Within the report (page 22) this disturbing direction is partially countered with the statement ‘While disabilities…are a continuing source of digital exclusion, over half (51%) of people with a disability use the Internet. This is a rise of 11 percentage points from 2011 (from 40% to 51%). Unfortunately, 51% is still considerably less than the 84% of non-disabled respondents who use the Internet, leaving a major digital divide for the disabled.’ [my emphasis]
There are mixed messages here which fail to recognise the diversity of the category ‘disabled’. They fail to pull out the specific issues of inaccessible internet design which cannot be interpreted by a screen reader or navigated by a non-mouse user. The category ‘disability’ lumps sensory, physical and cognitive impairment together with no acknowledgement of the range of different access issues individuals face through costs and learning curves of assistive technologies as well as poor online practice which discriminates against anyone operating outside a narrow range of access criteria i.e. the ME Model. Mouse. Eyes.
Cultures of the Internet makes interesting reading. We should take time to pay attention to the consequences of the shift to online ways of working. It isn’t being paranoid to highlight the social effects of a digital society, most of all the varying patterns of exclusion and engagement. If the higher education curriculum included critical reflection on internet implications rather than unquestioningly accepting changing digital cultures, it would be a start. If ‘digital’ graduate attributes were an expectation this would increase awareness of the social consequences of digital exclusion. Without this awareness attitudes which suggest it’s a life style choice rather than an act of discrimination will continue to be replicated and reinforced.