DSQ > Winter 2009, Volume 29, No.1

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has the potential both to enhance access for people with disabilities and to contribute to creating barriers. What we now call the digital divide actually began long before the introduction of computers — barriers have existed and still exist today with telephones, television, the Internet and other information technology. It is important to remember that people with disabilities have many different accessibility needs and that there are different ways to make technology accessible and that new accessibility needs emerge as technology changes. This paper looks at the state of accessibility policy in the U.S. in several technology infrastructures that may provide some lessons and directions for increasing inclusive information and communication technologies worldwide. For instance, if the many provisions involving technology in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are to have real and substantive meaning, policy and implementation at the infrastructure level must occur.1


Lack of access to telecommunications and technology is seen as a "digital divide" for people with disabilities. Information and communication technologies must be designed, developed and fabricated at the outset for accessibility and usability for people with disabilities. Absent this design and development approach, people with disabilities are left behind and are forced to play catch-up — an expensive and undesirable path. It is important to note that no matter what the stage of development of the communications infrastructures — such as wire line or broadband or wireless networks or the television delivery infrastructure — disability advocates and interested others can work to ensure that barriers are removed or, just as importantly, are not created as technology infrastructures advance.

This paper provides illustrations from the U.S. experience of ways to ensure access and usability in technology. Examples are provided of influencing legislation and standards, and working directly with government and industry representatives to achieve accessible and usable information and communication technologies for people with disabilities. The key catalyst is reported — how it is essential to have people with disabilities and their family members involved as policy changers to secure institutional change.

This paper does not discuss the indirect discrimination against people with disabilities that results from a lack of affordable technology in the marketplace or a lack of availabile technology that may occur as a result of multiple non-disability factors, such as: no delivery infrastructure; low overall employment; war or other extreme factors. This paper also does not discuss access to assistive technologies.2

A key point in advancing non-discrimination policy in technology is that people with disabilities must not be relegated to obsolete technologies, i.e., last year's donated models, or clumsy and expensive workarounds that may cause a new set of problems for a person with a disability and their family. This is a form of paternalism sometimes hard to see by people without disabilities who may believe that any solution is better than no solution.

In short, people with disabilities must have equal opportunity to benefit from the full range of mainstream communication products and services that are necessary to participate equally in employment, educational, recreational, and governmental and other settings. The focus of this paper then is to provide examples for both information and inspiration and to look primarily at telephony, television and the Internet as the technology infrastructures targeted to ensure people with disabilities are not left out.

If the many provisions involving technology in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) are to be realized in regard to inclusive communication technologies, policy and implementation should include people with disabilities alongside everyone else. The goal must be that any technology used in everyday settings by people without disabilities must also work for people with disabilities. This, then, is the road to reducing the "digital divide" in information and communication technologies.

The Digital Divides For People With Disabilities

Without disability accessibility in design, development, and fabrication of telecommunications services and products — from television programming and its distribution to the common everyday electronic devices that everyone uses daily — people with disabilities will be left out and left behind. This exclusion becomes ever more compelling as technologies converge and the pace of change increases with more and more products and services made available through new means of "digitization." There is not one barrier that can be described concerning accessibility, digital technologies, and people with disabilities. Generally, "digital divides" for people with disabilities manifest along several fracture lines. These include: varying ability within intellectual, visual, and hearing abilities; change due to aging; complications from accidents and multiple disabilities; differences in fine motor skills and ability to reach or approach equipment; and one's income and access to emergency information. These fracture lines occur generally in the four main areas of communications technology — telephony, television, the Internet, and information technology — or any technological device or equipment found in public and private settings. Table 1 provides a matrix to help illustrate these fracture lines among the various everyday electronic information and communications devices and services.

Table 1. Digital Divide Disability Fracture Lines
  Telephony Television Internet Electronic & Information Technology
  • phones
  • phone-like devices
  • services
  • availability
  • billing, customer service & product materials
  • TV "set"
  • controls
  • remote controls
  • programs
  • billing, customer service & product materials
  • content
  • user interface
  • authoring
  • browsers
  • videoclips
  • billing, customer service & product materials
  • faxes, copiers, voting machines, ATMS, info kiosks, computers, any electronic appliance
  • billing, customer service & product materials
Intellectual disability X X X X
Vision disability X X X X
Hearing disability X X X X
Gross motor ability limitation X X X X
Fine motor limitation X X X X
Aging, multiple disability, limitations due to accident X X X X
Low and very low income X X X X
Independent access to emergency information X X X X

Note: X indicates where a means of accessibility and usability must occur for there to be inclusive information and communications technology

Digital divides occur across the various functional limitation areas and across communication technologies. Divides exist even as telephony and television shift from analog to digital technology — a transition in the U.S. that will bring its own set of accessibility and usability concerns such as in the not-so-smooth pass through of captioning. Furthermore, people without disabilities may not discern the need for accessible and usable billing, customer service and product materials to ensure independence for the person with a disability. For example: a blind person may need their bill in an alternate format such as Braille or to have access to bill payment by voice over a secure phone system; a person with an intellectual disability may need an easy-to-remember phone number; the training video on how to use a product must have captioning of the audio track for hard of hearing or deaf person; the elderly or sight-impaired person may need larger font on a website, in operating instructions, and/or on packaging.

To reduce the barriers in telephony, for instance, there must be hearing aid compatibility of all phones — whether for wire or landline and wireless devices. There must also be design of phone devices so that these are accessible to and usable by people with vision disabilities and with other disabilities. Such accessibility includes designing for fine motor disabilities to "dial" and audio outputs to facilitate navigation of on-screen or menu information for people with vision disabilities. It can also mean a range of relay services for people who are deaf or who have speech disabilities. The availability of services and their cost are critical aspects in telephony, and may involve adjusting the service package, such as charging less for bundled voice service when deaf customers use only the text messaging portion.

Reducing barriers to access in television includes captioning for people with hearing and other disabilities, and ensuring smooth technological pass through of these captions as television transmission systems move from analog to digital. In television, video description3 for people with vision disability also reduces the digital divide. Likewise, the ability to independently manage controls and navigate menus can be a two-edged sword when new software controls replace yesterday's mechanical switches. Where telephoning and viewing television are a public or a shared activity, physical access may be an issue.

The Internet constructs barriers to access in content, in the user interface, and in authoring and other tools used to create Web content regardless of the general availability of the computing device used to access the Internet. Information technology in public and private settings typically has user interface barriers for people with vision disabilities, and reach and positioning difficulties for users with physical disabilities. If sound, an audio track, or an additional telephony component is involved, barriers must be reduced for people with hearing disabilities and for people with speech disabilities.

Who Needs Inclusive Communications Technologies

Central to reducing barriers for people with disabilities when dealing with infrastructure issues is knowing the needs, specifically in relation to telephony,television, and the Internet. This knowledge is important for several reasons:

  • People with sensory disabilities — such as hearing, vision and speech — will encounter the most immediate barriers to using information and communication technologies and if they are organized as consumers of phone and television services, they can collectively impact manufacturers and services providers.4
  • The types of changes to communications technologies that make it work for those with sensory disabilities may often also make it work for people with intellectual disabilities, and for people who are aging.
  • Government officials will want to know the numbers of PWDS, and advocates must marshal these statistics to support their arguments. After passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S. in 1990, advocates at all levels worked hard to ensure that the ten year Census count, and other efforts that focused on population research, included and asked the right kinds of questions to elicit useful numbers for policy purposes.
  • The companies providing telecommunication and technology products and services will want to know these population statistics.
  • To know the numbers of people with low incidence disabilities is especially important — those, for example, with speech disabilities, or those using a non-native language and having a disability, such as people who are Spanish-speaking and hard-of-hearing, or people who are deaf-blind — or their needs will never be addressed. The market place will most likely not address low incidence communications needs at all, even if it does provide some facilitation for more well-known disabilities. It really is up to advocates to ensure that any mandates for services include these needs or they will always be pushed aside in favor of higher incidence disabilities.

Government Mandates and Voluntary Commitments to Accessibility

Critical arguments to support government mandates to ensure accessibility and usability of communication technologies include realizing that:

  • Market forces will not ensure accessibility since there is no easy-to-profile "disability consumer" as disparate disabilities may require different forms of access; there is lack of information about disability household/consumer spending; people with disabilities lack the geographic specificity found with other groups.
  • While one or two companies may have exercised leadership and brought to market an accessible cell phone or an accessible computer or provided captioning on some of their web-based videos, there is usually no guarantee of interoperability, as technical standards may differ widely. Assuming that things that are "digital" are compatible or interoperable is a mistake advocates cannot make.
  • All affected companies must comply; this more evenly spreads the "need" to ensure accessibility and usability and will result in common standards and greater interoperability.

Digital Divide: Telephony

Making a phone call is central to independence, full citizenship, and total integration of people with disabilities into all aspects of society and the natural environment. From inquiring about a job, to setting up a medical appointment, being on the job, ordering take-out food, or finding a mate, using the phone is ubiquitous and matter-of-course. However, those with disabilities involving hearing, speech and vision may encounter numerous barriers if phone systems are not set up to accommodate to the needs of people with disabilities.

For instance, most telephones — or voice communication devices — are not designed to be hearing aid compatible, so people with hearing loss who use either hearing aids or who have cochlear implants may not be able to use cell phones or wire line or newer "smartphones" that are Internet-enabled or "3G" spectrum phones that everyone else wants to purchase. They simply either encounter interference with their hearing aids, or dead silence, or find themselves hearing beeps or uneven tones.

Solutions include telecommunications relay services, manufacturing phone devices and providing services that are accessible and usable, including hearing aid compatibility, and ensuring industry standards for accessibility.

Reducing the Divide: Telecommunications Relay Services

A federalized and ubiquitous system of telecommunications relay services was mandated in the fifty states in the U.S. with passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. This act reduced significantly communications barriers for people with hearing disabilities and people with speech disabilities. Over the eighteen years of this system, through advocacy work and innovations by the telephone relay system providers, new and more sophisticated means of relay service have developed in the U.S., illustrating the need to update systems as technologies evolve. These include Speech-to-Speech relay services, captioned telephone service ("Captel"), Internet Protocol (IP) relay, Spanish relay, Hearing Carry Over (HCO), Voice Carry Over (VCO) and the most recent, Video Relay Service (VRS). Table 2 describes these forms of relay and the types of users who benefit and illustrates.

Table 2: The Various Forms of Telecommunications Relay Services
Form of Relay Service How It Works Population Benefitting

Text-to-Voice TTY-based TRS

A TTY is a text telephone, generally using analog technology

TTY user calls Communication Assistant/Operator at relay center who voices call to hearing person. Any person with a disability particularly elderly, people without computers, and without wireless text message or text paging services available
Voice Carry Over (VCO) Person with a hearing disability who wants to use his or her own voice to speak directly to called party and receive responses in text via the Communications Assistant Senior citizens who have lost their hearing ability but can still speak
Hearing Carry Over (HCO) Person with a speech disability uses TTY but also uses his/her own hearing to listen to called party People with speech disabilities
Speech-to-Speech (STS) Relay Service Specially trained communications assistant at relay service center repeats what caller says in a manner that makes the caller's words clear and understandable to the called party. No special telephone is needed. People with speech disabilities
Captioned Telephone Service Special telephone that displays captions of what called party is saying and allows user, on one line, to speak to called party and to simultaneously listen to the other party and read captions of what the other party is saying. A "two-line" version of captioned telephone service offers additional features, such as call-waiting, *69, call forwarding, and direct dialing for 911 emergency services. People with speech ability and some residual hearing ability
Internet Protocol (IP) Captioned Telephone Service Similar to Captioned relay service but uses the Internet — rather than the telephone network — to provide the link and captions between the caller with a hearing disability and the communications assistant. People with speech ability and some residual hearing ability
Internet Protocol (IP) Relay Service Text-based form of relay that uses Internet, rather than traditional telephone lines, for the leg of the call between the person with a hearing or speech disability and the Communications assistant. Caller uses a computer or other web-enabled device to communicate. Caller needs internet connection. Person with any disability
Video Relay Service (VRS) Internet-based form of relay allows people whose primary language is American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with Communications Assistant in sign language using video conferencing equipment. The communications assistant voices what is signed. Caller needs Internet connection. Sign language users
Shared Non-English Language Relay Services - Spanish or other Language relay service (interstate required only) People with hearing and/or with speech disabilities whose first language is not English

Reducing the Divide: Mandating Accessible Phone Devices and Services

Phones that do not have tactility, or no means to distinguish keys or to hear audio outputs of the features and functions, will leave those with vision disabilities out of the phone system altogether. Routine phone calls may become insurmountable if the technological barriers are not resolved well before the phone device enters the marketplace or as the phone services network is established.

Since passage of the ADA, advocates have pushed for enactment of various federal statutory and regulatory changes to ensure that telephone devices incorporate accessibility. These changes took the form of amending the nation's Communications Act with Section 255 to mandate accessible and usable design in telecommunications products and services if it is readily achievable for a phone company or phone device manufacturer to do so. Section 255 also requires Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems to be made accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, if readily achievable. Even though the work is never complete as companies upgrade analog networks and bring to market ever more "digital" systems and more sophisticated devices, this struggle was begun by and continues to be efforts to gain meaningful access to telecommunications products and services.5

More recently, advocates initiated and influenced regulations to ensure that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S.'s independent regulatory authority, amended its previous Section 255 requirements for accessible and usable phone services and equipment with the advent of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP). This amendment resulted in a requirement for accessibility for Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) services providers where systems interconnect with the public switched network, another example of ensuring previously secured accessibility requirements to keep up with changes in technology infrastructure.

Table 3 summarizes the statutes, the accompanying regulations, and shows what private sector entities or companies are most impacted by the U.S. telephony accessibility requirements.

Table 3: U.S. Legal Requirements Ensuring Inclusive Telecommunications Technologies
Technology Area
(Year statute enacted)
Statute and Regulations Companies Affected
Accessibility of telephone systems

Americans with Disabilities Act Title IV, Section 225 Communications Act

Telecommunications Relay Services for Hearing Impaired and Speech Impaired Individuals (includes multiple forms of relay service such as traditional TTY, Speech-To-Speech service, Hearing Carry Over, Voice Carry Over, IP-Relay, Video Relay Service, Captel and IP-Captel.

Regs. 47 CFR Part 64.601

All phone services providers (wireless, wire line) must contribute to relay services funds
Accessibility of Telephone Devices and Services

Section 255, Communications Act

Accessible Telecommunications Services and Devices Including Interactive Voice Response Systems

Regs. 47 CFR, Parts 6 & 7

All phone companies, including wireless and wire line

All manufacturers of phone devices and products

Hearing Aid Compatibility

Sec 710 Communications Act

Hearing Aid Compatibility Act of 1988

Hearing Aid compatibility and volume control

Regs. 47 CFR Parts 68.4 and 68.6

All telephone devices, including wire line, wireless and cordless

Reducing the Divide: Developing Telephone Standards for Accessibility

Consumer advocates have worked their way into some of the industry sponsored standards and have greatly influenced telecommunications regulations. For instance, the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) is an industry entity that develops and promotes technical and operations standards for the communications and related information technologies industry worldwide. They have worked directly with people with hearing disabilities and with other disabilities to ensure regulations that meet the statutory and regulatory requirements of the Hearing Aid Compatibility Act and Section 255 of the Communications Act. For hearing aid compatibility, extensive negotiations have taken place with this and other industry bodies to ensure that as the nation moved from wire line to wireless phones, and from analog to digital systems, new standards were implemented to ensure compliance with the hearing aid compatibility statute.

Similarly, in the past, disability advocates worked directly with industry representatives to establish a standard and a plan for testing TTY accessibility to wireless phone service. This group, the Wireless TTY Forum, was comprised of representatives from wireless carriers and manufacturers, emergency and relay service providers, and consumer groups representing individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Lessons learned here by advocates include discerning what is an absolute requirement and where a willingness to compromise may result in a workable agreement.

Digital Divide: Television

No matter what one's opinion of television, it remains a major source of information, entertainment, and news for millions. Anyone without a disability takes for granted the ability to access video programming. However, those with hearing disabilities and those with vision disabilities do not have access unless the infrastructure incorporates inclusive design. Also, people with all sorts of disabilities may not even be able to operate the controls or the interfaces that manage the features and functions of the display or recording device as home electronics move from components to system-based purchases. For instance, it simply is no longer the case that the sound of clicking a dial to the left or right allows freedom to select a TV channel for a vision disabled person. There are more likely "soft" or touch control "buttons" combined with menu options.

Table 4 summarizes most of the statutory requirements in the U.S. that reduce the digital divide fracture lines in television and shows the entities affected.

Table 4. Telecommunications Statutes and Regulations Ensuring Access to Television in the U.S.
Technology Area
Year statute enacted
Statute and Regulations Companies Affected
Accessibility of telephone systems

Americans with Disabilities Act Title IV, Section 225 Communications Act

Telecommunications Relay Services for Hearing Impaired and Speech Impaired Individuals (includes multiple forms of relay service such as traditional TTY, Speech-To-Speech service, Hearing Carry Over, Voice Carry Over, IP-Relay, Video Relay Service, Captel and IP-Captel.

Regs. 47 CFR Part 64.601

All phone services providers (wireless, wire line) must contribute to relay services funds
Accessibility of Telephone Devices and Services

Section 255, Communications Act

Accessible Telecommunications Services and Devices Including Interactive Voice Response Systems

Regs. 47 CFR, Parts 6 & 7

All phone companies, including wireless and wire line All manufacturers of phone devices and products
Hearing Aid Compatibility

Sec 710 Communications Act

Hearing Aid Compatibility Act of 1988

Hearing Aid compatibility and volume control

Regs. 47 CFR Parts 68.4 and 68.6

All telephone devices, including wire line, wireless and cordless

Reducing the Divide: Captioning

To make television accessible for people with hearing and other disabilities, televisions — or apparatus that receive video programming — must be able to display captioning. First, this involves a decoder chip in the television receiver that is installed by the manufacturer before sale in the U.S. Second, there must be captioning embedded in the video programming for display to viewers. In the U.S., video programming distributors — that is, cable TV services providers, satellite TV services, phone companies that provide TV service, and TV broadcast stations — are held responsible for ensuring that captioning is built in the video programming. While these entities generally pass along the cost of captioning to the program producer they are responsible to ensure pass-through in their constantly evolving television service delivery equipment. These requirements, for both English and Spanish captioning, are enforced by the FCC and impact millions of people on the North American continent.6

Reducing the Divide: Video Description

For those with vision disabilities, while the audio track provides a great deal of critical information, it is video description that provides the full context. Video description consists of verbal depictions of key visual elements in a video or television program which is inserted into natural pauses in the spoken dialogue.7 Video description is selected or turned on by the user and typically uses the Secondary Audio Programming (SAP) or other audio track in video programming.8 Perhaps even more significant than access to entertainment, description of emergency information is needed for people with vision disabilities to hear, understand and appropriately respond to warnings of hazardous weather and similar emergency conditions.

Unfortunately, the mandate for video description in the U.S. was lost during a legal struggle in 2002 after eight months of rules implementation. That is, previously, there was a fairly simple requirement for four hours a week of video description of some television programming but this was overturned by an industry challenge to the regulations based on an argument that the implementing agency did not have the authority to promulgate regulations. The lesson learned here by American advocates is to ensure that statutory language for accessibility includes the specific authority to promulgate regulations.

There is currently a legislative proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives that would re-instate this obligation for video description and in light of the transition to digital television; it is mandated to occur by February 17, 2009 in the U.S., when most TV stations in the U.S. broadcasting analog transmissions are required to broadcast using digital technologies.9 A key point, here again, is that as technology advances, it is important for advocates to ensure previous requirements for accessibility are also updated or carried forward into new forms of communications technology.

Reducing the Divide: Accessible Interfaces

The legislative proposal to reinstate video description also includes never-before-seen provisions to make accessible user interfaces and controls where on-screen text menus or other visual indicators are used. This is an accompanying audio output to enable control of functions by individuals who are blind or have low vision. The proposal also asks for a conspicuous means of accessing closed captioning and video description, such as a single button on the remote control for activating captioning and video description and to ensure such options are on the top tier of on-screen menus. Even more far-reaching is a request to make the programming guide — that is, any onscreen television channel programming display — have a means of navigation in real-time by individuals with disabilities who are unable to read the visual display. If enacted, this could drive solutions to even more usable menu interfaces such as for other electronic goods. Advocates dream of a time when any electronic product comes out of the box with options for self-configuring accessibility, such as on voice command for, say, "set up for deaf person," "set up for vision disability" or "configure for deaf-blind use."

Digital Divide: Internet and Computer Technologies

Even in countries lacking a ubiquitous Internet infrastructure, there is a sense that economic development depends and will rely heavily on this technology. Few may think of the need to ensure accessibility and usability at the outset and should bear in mind the consequences of not having disability consumer safeguards for new Internet-based, digital and video technologies. Accessible user interfaces on consumer equipment, interoperable text transmissions, and inclusive web programming will create access to the vast resources of the Internet that everyone else, without a disability, takes for granted. Indeed, one can foresee new digital divides looming for people with disabilities in areas such as public safety and emergency response and in greater deployment of health information technologies.

Emerging technologies include wireless access to the Internet that could lead to deaf people's needs unaddressed if emergency service centers are unable to receive live text "help" phone calls. Similarly, as a means to reduce health costs, initiatives to advance health information technology may omit efforts to ensure that the consumer user interfaces — to access databases or services such as for claims or personal management — must be accessible also for blind people. Phone connection must also accommodate deaf people or people with speech disabilities; for instance, attention must be paid to whether telephone prescription (Rx) service connects to all the different forms of relay service.

Reducing the Divide: Electronic and Information Technology Standards Development

Standards development is a critical area for advocates to work in, resulting in more products and services coming to the marketplace that are accessible to, and usable by, people with disabilities. One example includes participation on the U.S. Access Board's10 Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee ("TEITAC"), a federal advisory committee charged with refreshing Section 508 Standards and Section 255 Guidelines.11

A federal procurement requirement is seen as a significant force for accessibility and usability in common workplace technologies since the government is a large purchaser and must ensure accessibility for its employees and customers. Section 508 calls for the implementation of accessible controls in information and electronic technologies, including video equipment that is purchased or used by the federal government, and accessible web sites for the customers and employees with disabilities of the federal agency.12

Reflecting the convergence of communications technologies that digitization brings, the TEITAC recommended, in April 2008, that the Access Board focus its rules on "product characteristics" rather than "product categories," and that it move from "telephone systems" to "real-rime voice conversation functionality." The TEITAC was able to harmonize accessible software standards for web site development,13 and it refreshed the old rules from the existing "software, Web, other content, and interface behavior" provisions into a converged "User Interface and Electronic Content" provision, again reflecting some of the trends in the marketplace. The Advisory Committee's report also provided valuable information for a standard, yet to be developed, for real time text and offered some approaches on how assistive technology should interface with other technologies.

The TEITAC was not the first time such a large federal advisory committee met to hammer out some issues resulting in standards and regulations. Previously, in 1997, disability groups were involved in the Telecommunications Accessibility Advisory Committee (the "TAAC") to work out the equipment guidelines for the regulations for Section 255 of the Communications Act. Likewise, before TEITAC there was the EITAAC, or the Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Advisory Committee, also convened by the U.S. Access Board. EITAAC drafted the first set of Section 508 guidelines for electronic and information technology regulations.

While these committees may not always reach consensus on many topics, standards-making processes are very important for building relationships between people with disabilities, and between organizations representing people with disabilities and individuals who represent the concerns of the private sector. Disability consumer representatives participated on all of these significant committees as voting members; such participation can lead to great exchanges of information and opinion and to the building of relationships between consumers and industry.

While it is important for disability groups to represent themselves and to have voting seats on federal advisory and standards-making committees, there is little doubt that there will always be an imbalance between the resources of industry and those of consumers who participate in such rule-making processes. For instance, even after months of work by the TEITAC committee, consumers with disabilities remained concerned that products can be made that are theoretically accessible under the rules but will not be actually be usable by people with disabilities. Advocates take heart that there is another bite at the apple when the agency has to issue official draft regulations and there is yet another opportunity to comment on and influence these proposed regulations before they are implemented. Advocates are always at a resource disadvantage since representatives as few or no disability advocacy organizations have the regulatory and engineering capacity to bring the type of resources to the table that industry brings.

Table 5 summarizes the current statutory requirements that ensure some accessibility to electronic and information technology.

Table 5. Summary of Legal Requirement Ensuring Some Accessibility to Electronic and Information Technology
Technology Area & Year Statute enacted Statute and Regulations Companies Affected
Accessibility of Information Technology and the Internet Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act 1973, 29 U.S.C. §794d All federal government agencies.
1988 (check) Requires federal government to purchase electronic and information technology that is accessible for its employees with disabilities and for "customers" of the federal agency Many state government agencies
"web sites" Regs. 36 CFR, Part 1194 All electronic and information technology (typically used in offices, including websites)
Other electronic and information technology

Reducing the Divide: Web Site Accessibility

It is easy to overlook a key aspect of the Internet — that websites themselves must be accessible and usable by people with disabilities. Key components of good design involve:

  • Content designed for the greatest number of users.
  • Availability of accessible Web browsers and media players and other "user agents" that interact with the pages.
  • Availability of assistive technology such as screen readers, alternative keyboards, switches, and scanning software, typically used by people with vision disabilities.
  • Consideration of users' knowledge, experiences, and adaptive strategies when they use the Web — that is, was the site designed with the full range of potential users in mind rather than the "gee-whiz" artistic expression of the developer.
  • Developers, such as the designers, coders, authors, and other users who contribute content are aware of accessibility concerns and issues.

All of these components have to be addressed with disability in mind or significant numbers of people with disabilities find they can't use the site. They are likely to give up going to the site, and the creator of the site could lose the sale or not get their message out or have their business regarded as "unfriendly to disability." For example, not only product information but order forms or payment modules should be made accessible. An emerging concern is the frequent use of video clips on the Internet without captioning or a means for a deaf or hard-of-hearing people to access the content. Sourced from television and movies, user-generated or from others — such as political candidates — this omission is a new digital divide that advocates must work to end. More and more such videoclips are used in employment settings, for training and workforce capacity-building; even with ADA's bar against discrimination in employment, the reality is that an employee with a sensory disability may not be able to participate equally with others when accessibility has not been embedded.

At least one industry-sponsored body works on developing standards for websites: the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) develops interoperable technologies (specifications, guidelines, software, and tools) to make the Web accessible to people with disabilities.14 While such voluntary efforts do occur and can lead to accessibility, taking legal action is one way disability groups in the U.S. have secured greater accessibility of web sites on the Internet. These actions have been particularly critical for blind people.

Court Cases and Settlements Involving Internet Accessibility

Some believe that the ADA pertains to web sites and there have been several legal cases that have dealt with this, often with disparate outcomes. However, there has been no specific ruling from the U.S. Department of Justice, the enforcing agency for the ADA, on this application of the ADA to websites. Nevertheless, recent settlements resulting from legal action may be influencing the U.S. situation. Target stores, for example, have now committed to making accessible the Target.com web site for blind people who use assistive technology. Likewise, earlier this year, a major pharmacy chain, Rite-Aid, agreed to make electronic telecommunicating point-of-sale devices more accessible to blind people and the three main credit history bureaus in the U.S. agreed to provide credit information in accessible formats on their web sites; these were all settlement agreements resulting from actions initiated by groups that advocate for the blind people in the U.S.15

These cases represent expansion of the ADA into cyberspace, and may provide impetus for other countries to ensure more consistent accessibility requirements.

Digital Divide: Reducing Low Level Internet Use by People with Disabilities

Surveys within the U.S. consistently report that people with disabilities have only half the rate of Internet access of people without a disability, and, despite regular increases over time, people with disabilities have not caught up, and still face a significant digital divide simply in terms of having the tools to make use of the incredible resources of the Internet. The most current data (October 2003) show Internet use by fewer than 30% of those with disabilities over age 15 while more than 60% of those with no disability used the Internet at some location. Also, both metropolitan and non-metropolitan people with disabilities have lower rates of Internet use than their geographic counterparts with no disability, with non-metropolitan people with disabilities having the lowest rate of Internet use (26.7%) of all groups.16 This is significant information for some who may believe that lack of national wealth is the only barrier to ensuring Internet use by people with disabilities. Table 6 summarizes this upsetting reality.

Table 6. Use of Internet at any Location by People with Disabilities
Year of Survey Percentage of people with disabilities
2002 with disability 26% compared to w/o disability 57%
2003 with disability 30% compared to w/o disability 62%
  with disability, non metro areas, 26.7%

Note: 2003 data finds that almost 40% of people with disabilities live in a home with computer but only 24% use it (compared to 66% of those without disabilities in households with computers) and decreases in rural areas.

Reducing the Divide: Policy Solution Approaches With the Internet

There are some ways to increase use of the Internet by people with disabilities. Policy approaches include:

  • Creating alternate discount rate schemes and other financial incentives to use of the Internet such as use of low income discounts or modified requirements for loans.
  • "Mainstreaming" or including at the outset, expenditure for computers, software and Internet access for people with disabilities in generic programs that have built-in to their budgets any necessary accessibility.17
  • Budgeting for Internet use by clients of special education programs and specialized work or benefits programs.
  • Web site content providers designing to show information such as captioning of video clips, sign language video clip options, accessibility for the assistive technology blind users commonly use, such as screen readers, insertion of video description, and other means.
  • Exhorting content providers to use available standards and guidelines for people with intellectual disabilities that allow content to be easy-to-read or understood.
  • Requiring both live and pre-produced television programs or movies that were captioned previously to also be captioned through re-formatting when it appears on the Internet; similarly for any video described visual material.

Uniquely, broadband Internet availability offers possibilities for people with disabilities that simple dial-up does not. Table 7 summarizes the unique features of broadband that may lead to greater inclusion for people with disabilities.

Table 7. Factors That Advance Broadband use by People with Disabilities
Unique Feature of Broadband What It Can Do for People with Disabilities
Speed Download waiting time reduces frustration, especially for some types of intellectual and mental disabilities
24/7 availability Allows service providers to provide supports and services outside of normal business hours, such as chat rooms, buddies and interactive games or immediate response or services for those needing critical attention
Greater bandwidth Allows more activity to occur onsite such as video-clips of sign language users explaining what is usually in a text format for hearing users of the site
Cheaper when scaling up Allows disability and other not-for-profit organizations to expand exponentially services and products that would otherwise need mailing or faxing or phone networking, such as vaster dissemination of newsletters and information through electronic service
Video applications possible Video relay Services (VRS) for sign language users to make and receive phone calls

Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) for businesses and others to tap services of sign language interpreters, which is particularly useful where there is a shortage of interpreters or geographic distance deters on-site provision of interpreters.

Video relay service has been so successful that there are now almost a dozen providers of video relay service (VRS) in the U.S. since first authorized in 2000. VRS allows the over one million sign language users in America to make phone calls in almost real time, something hearing people have taken for granted for years when making phone calls.

Catalysts for Change

The following are ways and approaches for advocates to ensure positive policy changes leading to more inclusive communications technologies. These are based on the American experience in securing statutory mandates, federal regulations and standards, engagement with industry for more inclusive communications technologies.

  1. Active involvement of large national membership or representational groups of individuals with specific and other disabilities. Such as through:
    1. Creation of task forces and coalitions.
    2. Organizational commitment to ICT efforts through passage of policy resolutions, principles, or position statements.
    3. Using technology to support coalition building, such as electronic alerts, updates, websites, RSS feeds, etc.
  2. Presence on boards, consumer advisory bodies and other non-profit groups interested in related policy topics such as broadband deployment.
  3. Disability representatives versed in statutory and regulatory language, familiar with federal governmental and regulatory processes, and deeply familiar with the consumer accessibility needs of people with disabilities and who:
    1. Educate regulators on an ongoing basis to ensure disability issues do not disappear.
    2. Enter civil service and regulatory bodies as staff to advance advocacy principles within the government.
  4. Federal agency rule-making processes that are open procedurally and that allow individuals with disabilities and their organizational representatives to participate. These processes themselves must also be disability accessible.
  5. Nonprofit organizations that commit to sustaining and working on policy issues for extended periods of time and that take principled positions, pass resolutions, and ensure their membership and board support the policy worker.
  6. Willingness on the part of disability representatives to work out disability statutory language face-to-face with representatives from the private sector companies involved; in some cases, to compromise on legislative language or regulatory requirements in order to reach a larger or feasible incremental goal.
  7. Asking for, and having, a requirement for a disability point of contact person at the company who is accountable for the concerns of consumers with disabilities, including responsibility for provisioning necessary alternate formats, and who is familiar with needs of customers with disabilities and can act as an ombudsman within the company.
  8. Involving as many providers as allies as possible, such as relay service providers, captioners and video description providers or developers, or companies that have committed to universal design principles.

Summary and Conclusion

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has the potential both to enhance access for people with disabilities and to contribute to creating more division and new forms of exclusion. It is thus vital that issues of accessibility and usability be addressed as technology continues to develop and spread and as new technologies emerge.

What is now called the digital divide actually began long before the introduction of computers — it is true today for telephones, television, the Internet and any electronic interactive system. It is important to remember that people have many different accessibility needs and that there are many different ways to make technology accessible. For instance, telephones can be accessible through their keypads, through using a telephone relay operator and by making phone devices work with hearing aids. In the USA, it took years of lobbying to convince manufacturers to make television accessible and this had to focus on both TV sets and provision of closed captioning while video description still remains a voluntary access service. Controls, instruction leaflets, and electronic program guides, for example, remain targets for accessibility lobbying.

Sometimes the technology itself develops to a point where it may promote more access. For instance, the increased use of broadband for Internet deployment could prove to be an effective boost for accessibility as it is quicker and can carry videos and other media. However, Internet site developers must design at the outset to ensure disability access for Internet users. Computer manufacturers must also ensure that software works for all disabilities.

Lack of access to telecommunications and technology is understood as discrimination by people with disabilities and is perceived as a "digital divide." Technology infrastructures such as in telephony, television, the Internet and information technology must take into account user needs of people with disabilities for accessibility and usability. These needs must be addressed at the outset of product and service development or situations for expensive retrofit may occur or people with disabilities will be left out or left behind.

The several provisions involving technology in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities must result in real and substantive inclusion approaches to communication technologies, policy and its implementation at the infrastructure level. While researchers and others may offer resources, an absolute catalyst for change is the presence of people with disabilities at every table — legislative, regulatory, standards making — and their persistence, in order to lead to more inclusive communication technologies.


  1. Several articles in the United National Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities address inclusive communications technologies (ICTs) and the need for accessibility; these are 9, 11, 21 and 26 and others indirectly.

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  2. Examples of assistive technology are wheelchairs, software and devices to access computer programs, prostheses, hearing aids, alternative and augmentative communication devices, or items such as white canes, reading glasses, cup holders, reachers and grabbers, and other specialized and adaptive equipment that support activities of daily living or instrumental activities of daily living and which may provide indirect access to communications and information technology.

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  3. Video description is the provision of verbal descriptions of on-screen visual elements that are provided during natural pauses in dialogue.

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  4. In the U.S., several groups have this role such as the American Association of People with Disabilities, American Foundation of the Blind, American Council of the Blind, Communication Service for the Deaf, Hearing Loss Association of America, National Association of the Deaf, Speech Communication Assistance by Telephone, Inc., Telecommunications for the Deaf, Inc. (TDI), among others.

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  5. For a history of deaf people's access to telecommunications, see "A New Civil Right: Telecommunications Equality for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Americans," by Karen Peltz Strauss. Gallaudet University Press, Washington, DC, 2006.

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  6. According to the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT), a 200 affiliate member disability group in the U.S. that works for more accessible technologies, there are over 100 million Americans, including 28 million individuals with hearing loss, 30 million people for whom English is a second language, 27 million illiterate adults, 12 million children learning how to read and 4 million remedial readers who benefit from federally mandated closed captioning on television. More at http://www.coataccess.org/?q=node/14, last accessed 3/31/08.

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  7. "Audio description," a similar concept, refers to verbal depictions provided during a live (non-recorded) performance or program such as at a play or similar event, and may be provided via a tape recording or live transmission to a headset worn by a person with vision disability.

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  8. According to COAT, beneficiaries of video description are the more than 10 million American television viewers with significant vision loss. Also, an anticipated epidemic of vision loss among seniors is expected over the next 25 years as the population ages. See at http://www.coataccess.org/category/3/12.

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  9. The Twenty First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (H.R. 6320), introduced June 19, 2008. Summary and bill at http://www.coataccess.org, last accessed August 19, 2008.

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  10. The U.S. Access Board is the federal agency that develops the standards — such as width of doorways to accommodate wheelchairs — to implement the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and other disability statutes.

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  11. These two statutes were: Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which applies to purchasing by federal agencies of all electronic and information technology (E&IT), and Section 255 of the 1996 Communications Act as it applies to telecommunications equipment manufacturers.

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  12. However, this requirement does not extend to web sites in the private sector, such as run by stores or companies and other private entities.

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  13. WCAG 2.0 and ISO 9241-171.

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  14. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) develops interoperable technologies (specifications, guidelines, software, and tools) to lead the Web to its full potential. W3C is a forum for information, commerce, communication, and collective understanding.

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  15. See Target Settlement at http://www.nfbtargetlawsuit.com/final_settlement.htm, last accessed August 31, 2008; Rite Aid agreement at http://lflegal.com/2008/04/rite-aid-web-agreement/; Credit Agencies agreement at http://lflegal.com/2008/04/credit-report-agreement/, last accessed August 31, 2008.

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  16. Enders, Alexandra. "Ruralfacts: Disability and the Digital Divide: Comparing Surveys with Disability Data." Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities, The University of Montana Rural Institute, Missoula, MT. June 2006, at http://rtc.ruralinstitute.umt.edu/TelCom/Divide.htm, last accessed March 14, 2008.

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  17. For instance, screen-readers for people who are blind, and software and hardware tools that allow people with learning disabilities to participate.

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