Exploring the World of Digital Divide and Disability

Exploration of the digital divide comes at an interesting time for me.  Understanding that I am in the midst of supporting our Human Resources with implementation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)/Employee Standard and this week is our large Occupational Health & Safety Fair; it seemed only natural that I dig more deeply into the realm of disabilities and digital divide.

Moisey (2007) defined the digital divide as involving “inequalities in access to the Internet, extent of use, knowledge of search strategies, quality of technical connections and social support,Digital-divideand ability to evaluate quality of information.” (p.2). Disability is one factor that can contribute to disparity in a person’s ability to access technology.

Information and communication technologies continue to grow at an exponential rate in workplaces however concern exists on whether employers have fully grasped the impact on employees with disabilities such as vision impairments, hearing problems or limited dexterity.  Additionally there is an expected rise in the number of workers with disabilities due to an aging workforce which presents added significance.

The Workplace Visions in 2003 reported that the employment rate on individuals with disabilities has not improved over the past decade and unless barriers to technology improved, a sharp divide and inequality may grow between individuals with and without disabilities.

The internet certainly has the potential to remove disabling barriers and to facilitate inclusion however a tension exists in that the benefits of the internet are not equally experienced by all disabled people.  Often the inaccessible design of websites themselves along with incompatible computer hardware and software become the barriers.  Workplace Visions cautions that accessibility with technology in the workplace is essential for disabled employees to experience equal social and educational opportunities.  Workplaces must look to make changes to better prepare disabled employees in an increasingly computerized workplace; to focus on the future.  One such way is to involve a disabled staff themselves in the problem-solving conversation as often they are the most knowledgeable about their own needs which is supported by AODA.  Policies and procedures must also be examined to find alignment to accessibility protocols and used consistently in the workplace.

For example many elearn modules in my workplace were built only with audio and images; offering wonderful imagery and sounds.  However it is not essential that the modules are examined again with a more critical eye to ensure compliance and satisfy the elearning accessibility guidelines.  Consider use of close captioning, screen magnifiers, slide auto advance, other adaptive devices or perhaps workstation adjustments themselves.

We live and work in a knowledge based society that is driven by web based information and communication technology.  Workplaces must strive to increase organizational capacity to meet the needs of all employees and citizens of their communities to maintain inclusion and social equality.  As a result, I also believe the inclusion extends to the creation of a more global community as disabled staff extend themselves broadly with technology.


Bruyere, S.M., Erickson, W.D, and Schramm, J. (2003). Disability in a Technology-Driven  Workplace. Workplace Visions, 5. p1-8

Moisey, S. (2007). The Inclusive Libraries Initiative: Enhancing the access of persons with developmental disabilities to information and communication technology. The Developmental Disabilities Bulletin, 35(1). p.56-71



10 thoughts on “Exploring the World of Digital Divide and Disability

  1. Learned something interesting today with respect to my own post; our provincial website is going to be re launched next month…fully accessible! It’s a first for us in this regard! Our communications department is frantically working away to embed the changes; for example all images will now have spoken text attached to them for visually impaired. I can’t wait to see the new look ‘n feel however these changes certainly move us forward in beginning to bridge the digital divide/disabilities within the community health care sector. Important as we consider the complexities and challenges in the system.

  2. Hi Kathy, this is an interesting point that I think our work is going to have to consider more explicitly going forward. We’re just in the process of switching over to electronic charting from the traditional paper chart. It hasn’t been an issue yet, but I can certainly envision navigation and documentation in the electronic environment (using tablets, computers) being problematic for some. We’ve also seen a significant increase in continuing education courses being delivered online rather than in person. Going forward we’ll definitely need to consider accessibility and work with our software vendor to develop solutions. Great post. Cheers!

  3. Best of luck Brian on the journey of moving from the realm of paper to electronic! It’s an exciting and timely one for healthcare however you are right, so much to consider; exciting though as we embrace the changes the digital world brings with it. Kathy

  4. Interesting post, Kathy. Thanks! I’m sure pleased a couple of you have picked up on accommodation of disabilities as another important facet of the digital divide. And as the internet has become a “need to have” rather than a “nice to have,” it’s not surprising that initiatives like the one you describe are taking place. Good timing, huh? 🙂

  5. Hi Kathy,
    Your post really opened my eyes to how disabilities contribute to the digital divide. As education and training increasingly move to an online/distance format, course designers need to ensure that everyone can access materials and contribute equally. This is especially true for people with vision and dexterity disabilities, as online learning requires a lot of screen reading and typing. These types of disability will certainly increase as the workforce ages. Your proposal to consult people with disabilities about the best ways to address their issues makes a lot of sense. I think the key for designers is to simply be aware of potential digital divide issues within their organizations, and differentiate accordingly. That certainly takes a lot of forethought!

  6. Hi Kathy, this is such a timely post, and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, we’re currently ramping up for AODA compliance also, both in terms of employees and students. Your website relaunch sounds awesome – can you provide the url once it’s up? I would love to see how it all comes together!

  7. Hi Kathy,
    Looks like your organization has done some great work. I as well would be interested in the website URL when your folks are finished embedding the adaptive technologies.

    Our institution has been working on a Universal Design Policy & Process for a couple of years and we still quite aren’t there yet. Unlike Ontario, we don’t have the legislative imperative to do so plus, we are a post-secondary so we like to consult extensively and have several layers of approval before implementation :).

    On another note, I think it will be very interesting to see long term what impact this legislation in Ontario has in improving workplace participation for people with disabilities and its influence on legislation in other provinces. I have a visually impaired cousin, who lives in Alberta, and she is heavy user of technology. The barrier for her is getting employers on board to install and utilize some relatively easy technology fixes for her to do work. Fortunately, she has found employment with an organization that has adapted some of the technology for her; however her job search was long and difficult (in spite of Human Rights Laws around hiring).
    Thanks for the post Kathy.

    • Hi Lisa, great point regarding long term impact of the legislation and workforce employment. Interestingly I found a report on the Ministry’s website that indicated the belief is that AODA will open up Ontario’s economy to an additional 1.7 million previously marginalized people which will support not only economic growth but also inclusion and diversity. And of course there is a whole piece surrounding how this Act will be enforced as there are significant penalty fees if not followed!
      Happy also to share what the new website will look like, if you get a chance please send me your personal email just in case the website doesn’t launch until after our course ends.

      Cheers! Kathy

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