Doing accessibility: improving access to digital

Part one of a two-part series on accessibility for National Inclusion Week. In the context of the upcoming National Strategy for Disabled People, Jake Wall looks at how we can improve access to digital.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust our lives ever more online, the increasingly prevalent use of digital services across society has brought issues of accessibility firmly into the spotlight. With services in critical areas such as employment and health guiding more and more people towards technology, it has never been more important to ensure that no-one is left behind.

The Government will publish a National Strategy for Disabled People later this year promising an ambitious strategy to “level up opportunity so everyone can fully participate in the life of this country”. Without a doubt, there is a strong role for both Government and industry to play when it comes to meeting this aim for online and digital services, ensuring that we not only increase access to technology and connected services, but that we also work to increase the accessibility of those services.

This insight is one of a two-part series on accessibility. Read part two on making digital accessible here.

Getting the right equipment and devices into people’s hands and providing them with network connectivity marks a distinct and central challenge as we seek to increase digital accessibility. Recent statistics lay out the extent of this challenge, revealing the proportion of recent internet users is lower for adults who are disabled (78%) compared with those who are not (95%), and that over half of adult internet non-users in 2017 were disabled. Older disabled people are found to be even less likely to use the internet, whilst the UK’s persistent disability employment gap of over 30% compounds issues of access pertaining to cost and, with employment opportunities increasingly provided online, clearly illustrates a need for action.

During the pandemic, there have been a number of different campaigns aimed at getting disadvantaged or vulnerable people online. To name but one, DevicesDotNow – supported by industry partners here at techUK and by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – have been coordinating wider industry action to ensure that those in need of support are not digitally excluded and can participate online safely. They have sought to provide everything from tablets to portable hotspots to the 1.9 million UK households who do not have access to the internet, and utilised funding to support community partners in their efforts against digital exclusion.

However, the challenge of maintaining a digital connection and equipment may also be significant for vulnerable or disabled users. In order to help overcome this obstacle, AbilityNet – a recent signatory to the Tech Talent Charter – has a network of volunteers that provide free IT support to help older people and people with disabilities use their technology. Whilst the pandemic has suspended home visits, remote support is still available to those in need, and it is vital that Government and industry continues to work on such valuable initiatives that can make a significant practical difference to people’s lives.

Just as critical, though, is affording people the opportunities to gain the skills they need to navigate the digital world. The Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index shows that people who have a disability are less likely to have the essential digital skills to live independently or in employment. It seems that providing digital skills training and workshops is not enough. We must ensure that such skills training is itself accessible; recognising the full diversity of disability.

This means a shift away from alienating language that may give rise to feelings of technophobia and broadening our means of communication so that users such as those whose first language may be British Sign Language are not left out. It means thinking about how and where these courses are offered and publicised, so as to be readily available and noticeable for those who need them regardless of age, disability, or location. In more rural areas or amongst older people, for example, libraries may act as community hubs which can help and support internet usage. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, ensuring that all those who need support are aware of exactly what opportunities are available to them, particularly online offerings, remains a key challenge.

It is also important that skills training provides disabled people with knowledge that actually aligns with their digital experience. Giving accessibility a more central role in essential digital skills training frameworks and empowering users to understand and utilise the accessibility tools available to them will better equip disabled users to engage with and feel the benefits of technology.

If we can get everyone in the UK online and give them the skills they need, it could deliver nearly £22 billion of benefits. In its recent Comprehensive Spending Review submission, techUK called on Government to consider the Good Things Foundation proposal for an investment of £130m during this Parliament offering support with digital inclusion through their network of online learning centres to those in need or facing digital, social, or physical barriers.

techUK is committed to furthering digital inclusion and continues to drive forward work on these critical issues through its Accessible Tech Group which launched earlier this year. The group seeks to highlight the business, economic and social benefits of disability inclusion through projects and best practice to help attract and grow disabled talent. If you are a techUK member that would be interested in joining this group, please get in touch.