A Pew Research study shows that even when the contribution of age and other demographic factors are considered, Americans with a disability are less likely to use the Internet than those without. In other words, while individuals with disability are likely to be of lower income, lower education, and higher age, within any demographic grouping, those with disabilities are less likely to hop on the Web. The survey revealed that 2% of Americans report a disability or illness that prevents them from perusing. Older adults are disproportionally represented in this 2%.
One of the major contributions of the disabilities rights movement was to point out that disabilities are contextual. This sounds abstract, but is fairly intuitive: many individual factors that are not considered “disabilities” in the modern environment would be disabling impediments in other eras; e.g., it would seem bizarre to consider having eyeglasses a “disability,” but it might be an impediment in a previous era before the wide availability of eyeglasses (or, in the current world, in impoverished settings where such simple technological adjustments are unavailable). Milder ailments and conditions and changes to the aging body that can be rather simply addressed by most Americans are not disabilities because the environment and technical capabilities have changed. (Similarly, traits that are assets in one setting may be “disabling” in other contexts: an ability to resist the “fight or flight” urge is crucial for the modern professional but may have been quite a detriment in other settings.) As our society’s resources increasingly shift to the digital world, individuals who are impeded from using the Internet are losing access to jobs, education, health information, and other valuable resources.
If the Internet is going to be utilized to help all age well, it’s important to consider who has access. The Pew report includes “a proposal to extend the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act to include Websites operated by certain entities.”
The Pew report is available at http://pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2011/PIP_Disability.pdf, and the Temple University’s Disability Studies blog is at http://disstud.blogspot.com.