Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2005, Volume 25, No. 2
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Rethinking the Digital Divide in relation to Visual Disability in India and the United States: Towards a Paradigm of "Information Inequity"

Vandana Chaudhry
Jane Adam's College of Social Work
University of Illinois, Chicago
Chicago, IL 60612 USA
E-mail: vchaud1@uic.edu

Tom Shipp
Department of Communication
University of Illinois, Chicago
Chicago, IL 60612 USA


This paper considers the barriers to information access faced by visually disabled people in the epoch of the information revolution. The authors question the inadequacy of the popular mechanistic-binary conception of the digital divide and propose a new paradigm "information inequity." This model aims toward a holistic conception of the realities of information access and marginalization for visually disabled people. The paper critiques the mechanistic-binary notion of a "digital divide" where one is either "info-rich" or "info-poor" based on the availability of technology. The paper adopts a cross-cultural perspective, considering digital disablement of visually disabled people in India and the United States. By considering the economic, political, cultural and educational aspects of marginalization, as well as the technological, the authors set out to delineate the relationship between disability, technology and society.

Keywords: digital divide, visual disability, digital disability, social informatics, information inequity


Information is an integral part of all human activity, and information technology (IT) carries the power to shape if not determine our individual and collective lives. Preliminary analysis of the impact of information technologies suggests that the information revolution creates a divide — the "digital divide" — between those with and without access to information technology; it segregates the "info-rich" from the "info-poor." However, mainstream discussion of the digital divide, as both a concept and a reality, inadequately addresses the problematic issue of information access in relation to disability, especially visual disability. Conceptualizations of the digital divide have elicited the attention of governments and I.T. professionals, yet conclusions drawn and remedies proposed oversimplify, or at worse ignore, the implications for visually disabled people.

Our paper seeks to address this gap by initiating consideration of the digital divide in relation to visual disability. We combine theoretical perspectives with personal disability experience and observations with the aim of stimulating further research into and debate over these issues within the Disability Studies rubric. Primarily, we critique the conventional, mechanistic conception of the digital divide, which determines that the digital divide is simply the presence or absence of information technologies. This binary framework reduces the complexities of information access to a state where one is either "info rich" or "info poor;" a categorization that reflects the supposed "modernity" or "development" of particular nation-state. Distancing technological from societal factors, the popular conceptualization offers simplistic digital solutions and inadequately problematizes the core issues of disablement. Because of the primacy given to the technological over other factors, such as political economy, education, cultural norms, and social marginalization, this is an insufficient paradigm through which to understand the complexities of the digital divide and information access in relation to minority groups, such as visually disabled people.

Focusing on the barriers to information access, we examine the multifarious political, economic and socio-cultural factors that underpin the inequities of information access in both India and the United States. Our analysis combines theoretical perspectives of information communication technology (ICT) and disablement, particularly digital disablement, with the lead author's visual disability experience of information access in India and the United States. (Originally from India, Vandana is a person with visual disability.) It is an attempt to conceptualize these different experiences from an interdisciplinary perspective synthesizing Disability Studies, communication and new media literature and theory. In this paper, we examine the relative levels of inclusion and exclusion experienced cross culturally by visually disabled people resulting from inequity of information access — as a manifestation of disability marginalization, perpetuated by political economy and culture. Shortcomings of the technological determinist perspective become clear when examining the issue of the digital divide from a cross-cultural perspective.

The paper begins with a discussion of informationalization and the rising information divide. Subsequently, it critiques the narrow mechanistic-binary framework of the digital divide from a "cross cultural visual disability" perspective of information access, using social theories on I.T, and disablement — digital disablement. We then examine the phenomena of digital disability, and the comforts and barriers of assistive information technology. Considering different forms and processes by which visually disabled people access information in India and U.S., we analyze dialectics of information inclusion and exclusion with a view to nuance further understanding. The paper proposes that a model of "information inequity" would provide a more holistic and culturally sensitive paradigm than digital divide to understand the barriers faced by visually disabled people. We wish to provide a timely, interdisciplinary reconsideration of the connections between disability, technology, and society. Our goal in this paper is not to propose direct practical solutions to the reality of "information inequity," but rather to address the problem through the analytical lens of theory and personal cross-cultural disability experience. It should be viewed as an exploration that offers opportunity for further critical reflection given the limited cross-cultural literature in the area.

Informationalization and the rise of information divide

Technological innovations have the capacity to transform the destiny of societies by influencing societal processes and stimulating cultural changes. Until recently, print-based media represented the principal form for the storage, display and communication of text-based information. Increasingly, computers have assumed this role and have replaced many previously conventional means of communication. For the past two decades, the capabilities of ICT have expanded exponentially in their range of applications and their future capabilities: they are shaping the world in to a new era of efficient, pluralistic information production. Information Technology is becoming the global tool for a multitude of applications and transactions, from the economic to the academic. In The Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells (1996) describes this process as "informationalization": the production of information is comparable to the production of material goods during industrialization. According to this historical analogy, computers are the factories of information (Castells, 1996). As a result, a great deal of the present day economic, social, and cultural realities and future prospects of nation-states is determined by the level of I.T. development within them.

The range of application makes I.T. a potentially liberating force; however, as the I.T. industry reflects broader economic, social and political realities, I.T. is often an exclusionary and repressive force (Castells, 1996). Castells postulates that "informationalisation," as the contemporary manifestation of capitalism, divides societies into information "haves" and information "have-nots;" it creates an information divide. He proposes that the "rise of informationalism in this end of millennium is intertwined with rising inequality and social exclusion throughout the world," documenting how "informational capitalism," results in a "sharp divide between valuable and non-valuable people and locales" (Castells, 1998; in Goggin and Newell, 2003, p. 68). The world in the era of informationalization has developed new rules of social stratification, rules that cause "technological stratification." Informationalization threatens to create new chasms in society that reflect economic, societal and technological inequalities. This process carries particularly detrimental consequences for visually disabled people and their capacity to participate in and contribute to a visually dominated, technologically advanced society.

For much of the past decade, policy leaders and social scientists have demonstrated increased concern about the growing divide between those with and without access to computers and the Internet. The U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration coined the term "digital divide" for this situation in the mid-1990s. Usage of the phrase and debate of the concept soon became commonplace across the globe, describing the stratification caused by the comparative surplus and dearth of information technology in relation to economic and technological means.

The digital divide represents an important initial framework for understanding and raising awareness of the stratifying potential of informationalization. However, it demands greater specificity and sensitivity to address the complexities of information access for visually disabled people. While the entry of the term "digital divide" into popular use and public discourse has raised awareness of the inequalities associated with technological development, the conceptual understanding of the digital divide is narrow. That there is informational and technological stratification in society is undeniable, yet the lines along which these points of exclusion are drawn remain unclear

Rethinking the digital divide

The conventional digital divide paradigm infers that the very presence or absence of computers, in other words the resources to access I.T., is responsible for inequities of information access. While this model wields some explanatory power — there is greater access to technology in richer countries than in developing countries — this divide is narrow in scope and drawn solely along technological lines. An understanding of the digital divide that ignores economic, political, cultural, and educational issues, as well as diversity concerns and conditions that facilitate optimal usage of I.T, is incomplete and inchoate.

Warschauer (2003) reexamines the concept of the digital divide. He "demystifies" the mechanistic model of technological determinism, proposes an alternative model of "social informatics," and calls for the consideration of infrastructural, social and cultural factors in digital divide discourse. This perspective stresses that technology and society are intertwined and co-constitutive, and that it is wrong to assume singular causality while understanding the digital divide (Warshauer, 2003). The digital divide is complex and reflects diverse and overlapping patterns of digital inclusion and exclusion that exist within and across nation states and are defined according to political, economic, and sociological factors. Because of the intricate relationship between these factors, increased physical access to gadgets alone fails to bridge this gap.

The digital divide in its broadest sense implies a chain of causality — both means and the ends of social stratification, and not a linear process. The lack of access to computers and the Internet affects many aspects of everyday life, but societal factors also determine the categories of "info rich" and "info poor." Although the possible range and efficacy of I.T. application makes it a potentially liberating force, those who are already marginalized from society are less likely to gain access to technology, and are more likely to be pushed to the technological as well as the societal periphery. In this way, the information divide reflects pre-existing societal inequalities and contributes to the further marginalization of minority groups in society.

Disability produces an invisible minority that is socially, culturally, and economically marginalized. This minority group that has existed on the societal fringe- ostracized from the development process is now excluded from the realm of information technology. Visually disabled people are arguably the marginalized group most drastically affected by the information technology industry because of the visual bias of so many ICT products. The idea of two distinct poles — the technology "haves" and "have nots" — dilutes the complex reality of digital divide that surrounds visual disability because mere technology does not ensure equitable access to information. Thus, informationalization, as a force of marginalization, pronounces and exacerbates inequalities and barriers faced by visually disabled people: the phenomena described by Goggin and Newell (2003) as "digital disability."

The concepts of "social informatics" (Warshauer, 2003) and "digital disability" (Goggin & Newell, 2003) illustrate clear shortcomings in the conceptualization of the digital divide. We believe that these ideas, combined with a cross-cultural understanding and personal experience of the barriers faced by visually disabled people, pronounce the inadequacies of the digital divide as an explanatory paradigm. Therefore, the barriers to information access and issues surrounding I.T. must be defined in terms of the relationship between disability, technology and society. The visual bias of digital technologies, which arguably affects visually disabled people more than any other marginalized group, reflects the attitudinal, infrastructural and institutional biases of society at large. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the interplay of visual disability, digital technology, political economy and the culture.

Digital disability and assistive technology

Digital disability is a "virtual" rather than "physical" form of disability. It is created by the inaccessible cyber structures that marginalize visually disabled people in particular. By structuring digital information according to "ablest norms," I.T. excludes the requirements of visually disabled people from its purview (Goggin & Newell, 2003). The I.T. industry assumes the universal accessibility of visually presented and structured material. The growing "informationalization" of contemporary society demands that people should be able to successfully utilize ICT. The inability to execute I.T. related tasks is a significant barrier to the acquisition of information, and capacity to communicate.

Visual information is inherently difficult for visually disabled people to receive, perceive, or interpret. Inaccessible information erects frightening barriers to success for visually disabled people in the knowledge-based economy of today. The popular notion that I.T. successfully caters to persons with visual disabilities, via its design, policy and service, is a myth. Assistive technologies are continually following in the footsteps of technological progress, and resultantly, AIT is inherently adaptive rather than integral. Moreover, the prevalence of electronic/visual structures and interfaces in everyday society exacerbates the problem. Information that visually disabled people individual could once navigate independently, or negotiate through social capital, is structured in an electronic/visual format. For example, household appliances and publicly accessible information terminals are unusable to anyone who cannot read the screen displays. The future jobs of thousands of visually disabled people, their ability to use labor saving household appliances, and their capacity to deal electronically with the rest of the world is at stake (Pike, 2003).

The advent of voice-aided assistive information technology (AIT) represents a significant technological development carrying the potential to narrow the digital divide for visually disabled people. Information access — via screen-reading computer software that reads on-screen text through a voice synthesizer — has increased the availability of digital information for visually disabled people. Screen readers such as JAWS (Job Access with Speech) and Kurzweil facilitate electronic communication, a vital technological development for visually disabled people in the epoch of informationalization. The Royal National Institute for the Blind, London, claims that AIT is one of the most significant developments since the invention of Braille, because, for the first time ever, many visually disabled people can have access to the same wealth of information as sighted people (RNIB, 1998). This is only true in part. In reality, digital information access is conditional; it depends on various factors beyond the scope of AIT.

While screen readers are employed extensively and effectively for a number of I.T. tasks, they do not ensure complete accessibility for visually disabled I.T. users. The major obstacle faced by visually disabled users is the inaccessibility of "modern day cyber structures" (Castells, 1996). The purview of AIT is limited to text and therefore many graphic interfaces are unreadable. The ubiquity of visual interfaces that remain inaccessible to assistive information technology (AIT) devices, particularly those employed by Web sites, compounds the digital disability faced by visually disabled users. The absence of any significant regulation in the cyber world dominated by private sector companies accentuates this problem of inaccessibility. Despite these shortcomings, there is no doubt that the limited efficacy of AIT has enhanced the capacity of visually disabled people to be independent, but it remains out of reach to the majority of potential users due to its high cost. At present, the retail price of a commonly used screen reader JAWS is $900. This economic reality has significant consequences for all visually disabled information technology (IT) users, who are generally poorer than their sighted contemporaries, and is particularly unfavorable to visually disabled people in developing countries where other barriers to access, such as poverty, population pressures, and low levels of literacy, contribute to digital disablement.

Digital disability is reinforced by the additional demands or technological skills that must be learned and mastered in order to access information via AIT. Using AIT itself requires extensive training and the acquisition of technological skills in addition to the skills sighted people need. Knowledge of a multitude of shortcuts and techniques for the negotiation of inaccessible Web sites is essential to get the most from assistive information technology and the information world it promises to unlock. This demonstrates the extent to which visually disabled people are required to know more to get the same work done (Vanderheiden, 1999; Goggin & Newell, 2003). The necessity of this highly specialized technological capital distances many potential users from the technology and its undeniable potential rewards. For many visually disabled people, AIT does not alleviate, but accentuates the problem of digital disability.

Modes of Information Access by Visually Disabled People

Conceptualizing and understanding how visually disabled people process data and information during their daily lives is crucial to reexamining the concept of digital divide in terms of visual disability. Visually disabled people access information and construct meanings through the non-visual senses: smell, touch, taste and, primarily, sound. We propose that people with visual disabilities perceive and access information in two broad forms: "informal" and "formal." This categorization distinguishes between different forms of information and the processes employed by visually disabled people to access information. Furthermore, this classification provides useful insights for understanding "information access" from a cross-cultural perspective.

"Informal" refers to sensory information or data from the immediate surroundings or physical and social spaces. In everyday life, a general perception of the physical environment is required to navigate spaces and places. Maneuvering through visually-orientated spaces, for example, a domestic area such as the kitchen, or public spaces such as roads, requires the utilization of "informal" information. Visually disabled people mainly access informal information with the help of human support provided by family, friends, community members, and other informal networks. In other words, visually disabled people mediate visual images and access their physical and spatial surroundings through social capital — the networks, norms and trust that facilitate cooperation and support for mutual benefit. Social capital is rooted in the cultural norms pertaining to these social support mechanisms and embedded in the notion of community itself (Putnam, 1993).

"Formal" information describes encoded data that requires educational or technological competencies to decode, and, therefore, to make sense of. Text is a commonly encountered type of formal data, requiring knowledge of a sign system and educational capital to interpret and discern. More often than not, "formal" information is visually formatted and thereby exclusionary to people without vision. Of course, Braille is an alternative system of encoding and decoding "formal" information that presents data in a form accessible to tactile senses. However, the increase of electronic "Formal" information, which is increasingly generated and disseminated through ICT, has effectively rendered Braille redundant. The development of assistive information technologies and other voice-aided devices that access formal electronic information has increased correspondingly. Since information and communication technology employs "formal" information in a primarily visual text format, it presents rapidly evolving obstacles to access for visually disabled people. Though AIT facilitates access to formal electronic information, the rapid progress of informationalization erects new barriers, creating an information divide for visually disabled people that exists in similar and divergent forms across different nation-states and cultures.

A Cross-Cultural-Visual-Disability Perspective of the Digital Divide: India and the United States

In this section, we consider information access for visually disabled individuals in India and the United States. A cross-cultural perspective of visual disability is especially productive in revealing how a range of cultural, political, economic, and technological factors exacerbate or alleviate the "digital divide." This comparison reveals pertinent issues of accessibility and suggests a more complex, holistic conceptualization of the digital divide in relation to visual disability. Depending on the culture visually disabled people live in and the nature of information- formal/informal they need to access, different modes of accessing and navigating informational and public spaces are adopted. Modes of access for visually disabled people range from human support in the form of social capital, through to low and high key technology, such as Braille, magnifiers, recorders, radios and voice-aided computers (Gray, Quatrano & Lieberman,1998).

The United States, owing to the nation's wealth and its status as a hub of technological development, is the archetypal informationalized society. Being the epitome of "informationalization," more and more transactions are carried out in cyberspace. I.T. networks are widespread and extensively used for social, economic, and cultural transactions. As a result, everyday communication in the U.S. is increasingly shifting from informal to formal domains. The rise of e-commerce, the computerization of service industries from ATMs to self-service check-ins and checkouts, online dating agencies and the abundance of billboard images demonstrate this increased emphasis on formal information. The capability to access and navigate through the virtual world has huge social and economic advantages in the U.S. (Kennard, 2000). However, the proliferation of visual, formal information presents new barriers for visually disabled people. The virtual world is becoming as significant as the physical world, and, consequently, inaccessibility becomes an agent of disablement and disability becomes a digital construct.

Despite increases in accessibility, for example, screen reading software and talking ATMs, there is a continuous chase in progress, where the needs of visually disabled people are a secondary consideration and the means of access to technology are adaptive rather than integral. The design and structure of electronic information, most notably Web sites, demonstrates scant consideration of those users employing nonvisual senses. Some estimates suggest that as many as 98% of all Web sites contain some access barrier to people with one or more disabilities (McGrane, 2000). Since private sector companies dominate the I.T. sector and it appears that when it comes to innovations, access concerns are secondary in issues of cost benefit analysis.

According to a study conducted by National Telecommunications and Information administration in 2000, people with disabilities tended to use the computer and Internet at the rate below national average — even while other factors like age, education and income were statistically accounted for (Kretchmer & Carveth, 2003). In the U.S., only one-fifth of visually disabled people have access to the Internet compared to three-fifths of the general population (Bureau of the Census, 2000). Potentially, computers and Internet access offer connections to an array of informational and human resources (Gerber & Kirchner, 2001). Research has found that Internet access significantly improves the quality of life for disabled users (Taylor, 2000b), but that those without access to ICTs are increasingly marginalized from mainstream society (Taylor, 2000a). Many lack adaptive technologies that would help them use computers and the Internet. The cost of screen reading software ($900) prices many users out of the very cyberspace that it promises to unlock.

It appears that the exclusion of visually disabled people is also a direct consequence of the shift from interpersonal contact to technological interface- another manifestation of general disability marginalization. In an inaccessible environment, visually disabled people in the United States continue to depend on human support in order to negotiate the "formal" technological interfaces that exist in previously "informal" public spaces. Additionally, in the U.S., cultural norms emphasize independence and efficiency, which places expectations on visually disabled people to become more independent in their everyday information access with the aid of partially effective AIT. The double bind of meeting societal expectations in an inaccessible digital world further exacerbates digital disablement. Thus phenomena of "digital disability" compounds the digital divide in the United States.

While visually disabled people population of the U.S. may have access to technological resources, the barriers to information access are powerful and systemic. The notion that mere access to I.T. makes one "info rich" is flawed as mere possession of technology is no guarantee of access. Political economy; social and cultural norms; educational and social capital; as well as general disability marginalization determine the wider context. Understanding of the digital divide in the U.S. must therefore be contingent upon the interdependent relationship between society, technology, and disability. As argued above, visually disabled people in the U.S. are not uniformly "info rich," because varying degrees of information access exist across the disability community, based on economic class, as well as technological constraints and competencies. Thus applying the binaries of "info rich" and "info poor," with reference to the availability of technology alone in different nation-states does not effectively illustrate and/or address the complexities of the digital divide. The common perception that the visually impaired in the U.S. are more likely to be "info rich" in comparison to their "info poor" counterparts in developing countries, such as India, is therefore a myth.

A direct comparison between India and the U.S. highlights contrasting levels of informationalization and, correspondingly, contrasting amounts of textual communication encountered in everyday life. This difference is particularly pronounced in rural and semi-urban areas. With the exception of big cities in India, there are fewer e-transactions, automated devices, electronically regulated billboards, road signs, and a less-developed public transportation infrastructure than in the U.S. There is still prevalence of oral culture where the printed word has limited influence. Literacy rates are low, which has direct bearing on the kind of media needed for communication (Balaram, 2004). As a result, there is a greater emphasis on "informal" information access in India, which makes communication easier for visually disabled people because of the dominance of the oral/aural mode of communication. Because physical infrastructure is less advanced and information less formal, India is more orally accessible for visually disabled people. The primary means of information negotiation and communication is an interlocking web of social networks; therefore, informal information and social capital are more useful to and relied upon by visually disabled people in India than in the U.S.

It is important to take note of the levels of educational and economic capital in India in order to understand the complex underlying issues that restrict access and digital disability. In India only 57% of the general population is literate, and, therefore, there is an intra-national divide in educational capital that separates the "info rich" from the "info poor" (UNICEF, 2000). Furthermore, literacy among the estimated 70 million disabled Indians, 7 million of whom are visually disabled, is approximately 8 percent (Sarvekshana, 2002; DPI, 2004). The dominant communitarian value system and culture of India, which places emphasis on community and family support has distinct advantages for visually disabled people members; they are able to access "formal" and "informal" information through social networks which offers comfort and security. While interdependence is a vital and valuable facet of human existence, the shift to a knowledge-based economy demands greater capacity for digital self-sufficiency and independence.

Although the societal structure offers convenient access to informal information, it presents barriers to access formal information. The failure of key informal helping systems to meet the demands and complexities associated with formal information access represents a significant problem. This process of disablement stems from the level of economic, educational and technological resources required in the realm of higher education, employment, and so on. The majority of visually disabled Indians use human readers as well as inexpensive low-key technology like Braille, and tape recorders to access formal information in the area of education and employment (Baqar & Sharma, 1997). The relative inefficiency of "low key" technologies curtails the independence, productivity, and thus developmental opportunities for visually disabled people. For the vast majority of visually disabled Indians, the expense of AIT places it out of reach.

In India, accessible digital technology for visually disabled people is less prevalent as its purview is limited to a select class of society. AIT is exclusively the prerogative of a wealthy minority due to widespread economic deprivation, and this, in turn, creates economic hierarchies within visually disabled people community. Generally, digital resources for the average visually disabled Indian are scarce if non-existent. This scarcity directly relates to the political economy of India. Large population puts pressure on resources, shrinking the availability of capital for accessible infrastructure and technology for disabled people. Most of the resources are utilized for basic needs like food, health, primary education, law and order, defense, railways, irrigation etc. Thus little capital is available for developmental activities like higher education, industrial development, research in science and technology and even fewer for access purposes (Erb & Harris-White, 2002). Political neglect and a relative paucity of economic and technological resources make AIT an expensive, unsubsidized luxury item. Additional factors further exacerbate the problem: the limited availability of JAWS in any Indian language; the widespread neglect and ignorance of I.T. producers about the access needs of disabled users; and the resultant low level of technological competency among users of AIT. For visually disabled people in India, digital scarcity — the dearth of accessible technological and other resources, lack of political will to address the problem, and general ignorance about digital access - enlarges the digital divide. Critically, the limited availability of AIT hinders the pursuit of higher education and employment opportunities for visually disabled people, which excludes them from entering economically viable professions, thereby placing a glass ceiling on positions of power. Hence, "digital scarcity" produces cyclical deprivation and powerlessness. Notably, in India the idea of access has different connotations in a country where only 3.5 percent of the population uses the Internet (ClickZ Network, 2005), and only eight percent of disabled children are in full-time education (DPI, 2004). Prevalence of realities like poverty, population pressures, illiteracy and lack of infrastructure calls for broader solutions that address systemic inequalities (Balaram, 2004). As illustrated by the United States and India, the digital divide is interplay of political economy and culture. In case of India, like the U.S., a nuanced perspective of the digital divide and disability issues is required in order to provide a refined conceptualization of the relationship between disability, technology and society.

Analyses of Government Policies and the Digital Divide

The Indian and U.S. governments have recognized the necessity of access in the contemporary knowledge-based economy and have introduced legislations to address the digital divide. Both India and the U.S. have framed policies to protect the rights of disabled people, which contain mandates to raise awareness of and confront issues of accessibility. Unfortunately, the provisions made by these measures have had limited success. Conventionally, the term "access" connotes the availability of a physical realm and has only recently been applied to the negotiation of virtual spaces, such as the Internet. "Informationalization" is a relatively contemporary phenomenon and is a peripheral concern within the wider agenda of accessibility.

The disability rights movement altered the shape of disability policy in both the United States and India. However, a great deal remains unaccomplished despite some movement in the right direction. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 1992 broadened the meaning of access by including provisions for digital accessibility in the legislation. Since then the information world has grown multifold, and the addition of further legislative action has addressed increasing significance of the right to information access. For example, amendments 506 and 508 in 1998 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibit barriers for disabled people in communication and information technology. The advocacy of the disability rights movement also resulted in the formation of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), established at MIT in 1994 (W3C, 1994). The W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines propose standards for Web site accessibility and encourage web designers to improve accessibility of the World Wide Web. However, these guidelines are seldom adhered to and have no legally binding clauses, because as a private sector industry, the accessibility aspect of Web site design is unregulated.

The dominance of the corporate sector in I.T. development represents a significant obstacle to a more disability-conscious and accessible cyberworld. The provision of accessible I.T. structures, and the development of more advanced, integrative rather than adaptive technologies, is in direct competition with the demand for high profit margins. This conflict between public good and private gain is coupled with a general ignorance of the needs of visually disabled people and the access problems they face. Society at large remains oblivious to these complex IT access issues, and this is compounded by, and reflected in the relative lack of investment and interest in AIT. As political, social, and economic institutions are interdependent and reflect societal concern and values, the result is policies and technologies that exclude disabled people from the development process in general, and information world in particular.

Despite the harsh economic realities that drive the information world, the struggle to ensure that accessibility also means accessible non-visual IT resources as much as ramps for wheelchairs, has had some notable triumphs. The commitment of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) to tackle accessibility issues demonstrates a shift in the right direction. The publication of the model bill, the Accessible Information Technology Act, in 1997, has seen laws based on the NFB's proposal passed in several U.S. states, such as Arkansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Texas and Virginia (Gashel, 2003). In these states, it is required that all I.T. technologies purchased by the state feature integrated provisions for non-visual use. Moreover, the out-of-court settlement between America Online (AOL) and the NFB, in 1999, after the NFB sued AOL for failing to provide accessible Internet services, demonstrates an increased awareness of digital disability in mainstream society. AOL has made accessibility for blind users a corporate commitment and faces further legal action from the NFB if it fails to uphold its side of the bargain (Gashel, 2003). The political economy of the U.S. may play a significant role in creating digital disability and widening the digital divide, but this process of marginalization is not inexorable. As the example of AOL's corporate capitulation shows, minority activists can challenge and change the I.T. sector for the benefit of disabled minorities.

In India the Persons with Disabilities (PWD) Act (1995) introduced limited provisions to ensure electronic accessibility for disabled Indians. Sections 27, 48 and 49 of the PWD encouraged investment in the provision of and research in assistive technology. However, these provisions exist merely on paper, a fact compounded by a lack of political will, economic resources, and diffuse activism on the part of the disability community. While the ministry of Information Technology of India has laid down guidelines to provide access to information technology across different socio-economic sections of society, it issued no directive to increase IT access for persons with disabilities (MIT, Govt. of India, 2004). Here again, the political economy and general disability marginalization perpetuates similar divide, only that given the relative poverty and developing economy of the Indian nation-state the divide is much deeper.

We believe that these legislative frameworks have been unsuccessful in bridging the digital divide, because of their narrow definition of information access as the mere physical availability of technology. This has resulted from a one-dimensional understanding of the relationship between disability, technology, and society, where technology is isolated from broader political, economic and cultural context. This reductionism — the unsophisticated understanding of the information divide — constitutes the foundation of programs and policies today. Governmental measures rest on the principles of technological determinism: The idea that the availability of technology is sufficient to bring about social change. As we have illustrated over the course of this paper, this is a simplistic and consequently exclusionary set of assumptions concerning disability, technology and society. A more holistic perspective — social informatics — has challenged technological determinism. Social informatics, according to Mark Warschauer (2003) implies that the goal of providing access to I.T. cannot proceed without socio-economic development. He argues that:

Realizing this objective involves not only providing computers and Internet links or shifting to online platforms but also developing relevant content in diverse languages, promoting literacy and education, and mobilizing community and institutional support toward achieving community goals. Technology then becomes a means, and often a powerful one, rather than an end in itself (Warschauer, 2003, p.5).

Applying the concept of social informatics to visual disability demonstrates that the mere provision of computer technology is insufficient to ensure inclusion of visually disabled people. The digital solutions must address the societal antecedents, the political, economic, and cultural systems that contribute to and accentuate digital disability.

Towards a Paradigm of "Information Inequity"

Examination of the digital divide as both a concept and a reality illustrates the key causal factors that surround the issue of digital disability and exposes the simplistic perspective of mainstream digital divide discourse. As we have highlighted with visually disabled people, certain groups with specific access issues are marginalized from the main debate. For the most part mainstream debate overlooks the relationship between disability, technology, and society, and offers unsophisticated digital solutions to complex problems. As observed across India and the U.S., "digital" solutions disregard the economic, technological, social, and cultural factors that underpin the complex reality of the digital divide. Conventional digital divide discourse, which employs the binary framework of "info rich" and "info poor," oversimplifies the complexities of access and the far-reaching implications of informationalization. We argue that this crude model of the "digital divide" needs to be elaborated and developed in order to explain the role of macroeconomic and political factors, as well as account for the overlapping, multifarious pluralities of information access that exist within and across various cultures.

Applying the binaries of "info rich" and "info poor," with reference to economic resources and technological availability alone in different nation-states, does not successfully illustrate the complexities of the digital divide in relation to visual disability. In the U.S., inaccessible informational structures marginalize visually disabled people. In this sense, excessive digitalization of information makes visually disabled people more "info poor," despite the supposed "info richness" of societies characterized by greater levels of informationalization and resources. In India, digital scarcity excludes visually disabled people from access to formal information. This makes them "info poor" in relation to technological access, even though the relative ease of accessing informal information, the ability to maneuver informal informational spaces through the support of social networks, makes them "info rich." Consideration of the digital divide from the perspective of visual disability illustrates the inconsistencies and imperfections of the standard conception of "info rich" and "info poor," which determines these categories solely on the basis of technological factors. The dialectics of inclusion and exclusion exist across the conventional digital divide and its theoretical grounding in technological determinism has ignored profoundly important contributory factors.

We argue that the simple binaries of "info rich" and "info poor" do not do justice to the problem of information access for persons with visual disabilities across different cultures. Instead both India and the U.S. represent overlapping realities of "information inequity," stemming from political, economic, social, and cultural institutions and contexts within each nation-state. The majority of Americans with visual disabilities experience information inequity through digital disablement. Digital disability is a multi-systemic manifestation of "information inequity" perpetuated and exacerbated by widespread I.T. inaccessibility, poor legislative regulation, private sector dominance of the I.T. industry, and ingrained social and cultural expectations. Similarly, visually disabled people in India face information inequity through digital scarcity, which results from the limited availability of digital resources, a lack of knowledge about assistive information technology and a lack of political will to address this issue. In short, visually disabled people in both nations experience "information inequity" due to political, economic, societal, and technological factors that combine in various permutations to produce digital disability. The multifarious factors that contribute to digital disablement represent an overarching disability marginalization in the society.

Digital disablement and digital scarcity are not absolute, mutually exclusive categories. Instead, they are modes of information inequity that exist within and across nations. We propose that information inequity is a common social reality that occurs in significantly different and complex manifestations. One form of inequity may be the result of digital disability; another may be precipitated by digital scarcity. What we have as a result is not a singular conception of "info rich" and "info poor," but multifarious configurations of each, dependent on a number of contingent factors. For example, visually disabled people in the U.S. may be "info rich," by virtue of resources, and "info poor," because of the scale of electronic transactions and the problem of inaccessibility, as well as cultural expectations to be independent. Visually disabled people in India may be "info poor," because of the lack of resources, but "info rich," due to lower levels of informationalization and higher levels of social capital. What we have as a result is not a singular conception of "info rich" and "info poor," but multifarious configurations of each dependent on a number of contingent economic, cultural, social, political and technological factors. Therefore, in both India and the U.S. visually disabled people experience inclusion and exclusion from information access for a number of reasons.

Therefore, processes of inclusion and exclusion coexist and are determined by context; "info rich" and "info poor" are simple labels for complex processes. We argue that the "information inequity" model represents a more comprehensive conception of the diverse realities of information access than the "digital divide." Through engagement with social informatics, the ideas of digital disablement and digital scarcity across cultures, the "information inequity" paradigm offers a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of information access by visually disabled people. Hence, the inequity model provides us with a more holistic perspective that combines disability, technology and society. The information inequity model also points us to both broad and particular solutions aimed at political economy through social policies that ensure inclusive development, education and greater information equity.


This paper combines theoretical perspectives, personal disability experience, and practical observations of the relationship between ICT and disablement with the aim of developing the understanding of information access by visually disabled people in the digital world. Our challenge to the popular binary perception of a technologically determined digital divide attempts to provide a more comprehensive conceptualization of the divide. The "information inequity" model locates the issue of the digital divide and, resultant digital disablement, squarely at the intersection of disability, technology, and society. It recognizes that "information inequity" is a common marginalizing reality, a byproduct of political economic, cultural and societal factors, which is recognizable, in varying manifestations, across India and the United States. The "cross-cultural-visual-disability perspective" of information inequity reveals the interconnections between digital scarcity and digital disability. The inclusion and exclusion dialectic, which demonstrably exists within and across India and the United States, is pertinent to understand the complexities of, and dissipate the myths surrounding digital accessibility. This paper should be viewed as an exploration — a work in progress — that offers opportunity for further critical reflection especially in terms of limited literature with regard to cross-cultural perspectives. Ultimately, our hope is that this discussion and these ideas are utilized, developed and operationalized by disability academics, practitioners, and policy makers in the necessary pursuit of information equity.


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