For over a decade the term digital divide has been used to refer to discrepancies between various population segments in terms of access to information technologies. The digital divide is in opposition to the ideal of equality of access in which all citizens are afforded uniform access to information and information technology. Discussions on this topic seem to most often focus on such factors as race, income, education, geography, and the like. There is, however, a significant and growing group of “digital have-nots” that is frequently overlooked. This group comprises individuals who have some form of physical, sensory, and or mental disability. While the need for full enfranchisement of this group can be effectively argued on legal as well as ethical grounds, it can be shown to make sound business sense as well. Consider this statistic from the most recent U.S. Census. A startling 21.8% of Americans above the age of 16 have at least one disability that results in a “substantial limitation” of one or more “major life activities.” Examples of such disabilities are vision problems (3.5%), hearing problems (3.3%), difficulty using hands (3.0%), and learning disabilities such as dyslexia (1.4%) (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2000, pp. 62-63). Each of these disabilities carries negative consequences regarding accessibility to Web-based resources. The prevalence of disability increases with age. For example, according to 2005 data, 12.1% of Americans in the age group 16-64 have at least one disability. The percentage jumps to 40.5% when considering those of age 65 and above (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2006, Table S1801). Much of this dramatic increase in occurrence is due to declining vision, hearing, and dexterity (Bergel, Chadwick-Dias, & Tullis, 2005; Fox, 2004; Loiacono, McCoy, & Chin, 2005; Steinmetz, 2006). The youngest American baby boomers are now in their forties. The average age of the population of the U.S. and of most other developed nations will increase substantially over the next few decades, as will the concomitant prevalence of physical disability (Bergel et al., 2005). This demographic shift is due partly to the post World War II “population bubble,” but it is also due to the tremendous increase in life expectancy in modern times (an increase of 30 years since 1900, according to U.S. Administration on Aging statistics) (Mosner & Spiezle, 2003). The segment of the American population comprising individuals of age 50 and above will grow from the current 38% to 47% by the end of the next decade (Moos, 2005). Also growing dramatically is the average age of the workforce. Workers are delaying retirement for numerous reasons, while the rate at which younger workers enter the workforce is declining (Mosner & Spiezle, 2003). In an increasingly Web-oriented information-based economy, worker productivity hinges on accessibility to Web-based systems. This issue demands more attention as the age of the workforce (read prevalence of physiological impairments among workers) increases. This article considers some of the issues surrounding accessibility to Web systems and services by individuals with imperfect abilities. It is argued that, beyond the moral and legal reasons for accommodating this group, there are numerous advantages for business and commerce that can be achieved.
As is the case with all technologies, the design and organization of Web content can greatly impact accessibility of that content by persons with certain physical or mental impediments or disabilities. Consider, for example, those individuals who have even minor mobility or dexterity problems. This might include persons of advanced age, as well as those who suffer from arthritis, rheumatism, Parkinsonism, effects of stroke, or similar maladies. For this group an activity as simple as clicking a particular hot-zone on an image map can be difficult, depending on the size and the complexity of the object. Even activities as common as using the scrollbar to move through the content of a Web page can be troublesome to individuals with motion impairments.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Section 508: The section of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that deals with information technologies and systems. This section requires that all information systems utilized by the U.S. Government agencies be accessible to disabled individuals.
Screen-Reading Systems: Adaptive technologies that are designed to produce the speech output equivalent of text-based information. These systems can be efficacious with Web content only if the content is designed properly.
Large-Print Access Systems: A type of adaptive technology that is intended to provide screen-based access to persons with impaired vision or with certain cognitive disabilities. These systems are based on enlarging the screen image in some way.
Universal Design: An approach to designing Web content where the intent is to provide access to the broadest range of clients, regardless of individual abilities, disabilities, circumstances, or environments.
Subsection 1194.22: The portion of Section 508 that covers Web-based (both Internet and intranet) applications. (See Section 508 ).
Digital Divide: The concept that there exist inequities in access to public information and information technologies by certain segments of the population. These segments are defined by such attributes as income, race, education, and disability.
Bobby (WebXACT): The most well-known tool to evaluate Web sites for compliance to Section 508 and WCAG standards. Bobby was launched in 1995, but it was re-implemented as WebXACT in May of 2005. WebXACT remains a free service available at http://webxact.watchfire.com/ . Despite the change, it is still often referenced through its original Bobby handle.
Electronic Curb Cuts: A term referring to adaptive technologies that are aimed at computing and information technologies. The term makes an analogy to the federally mandated removal of curbs at crosswalks to facilitate wheelchair access. Unexpected benefits of such modifications are often called the curbcut advantage .
WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines): A set of design guidelines championed by the World Wide Web Consortium aimed at increasing accessibility to content on the Web. These guidelines consider poor user environments as well as users of varying physical or cognitive abilities.
Adaptive/Assistive Technology: Technology that is aimed at providing independence to individuals with disabilities. The terms adaptive and assistive are often used interchangeably, but there is a fine distinction. Assistive technologies stand on their own, while adaptive technologies provide accessibility to existing mechanisms and systems which might otherwise be inaccessible.
Equality of Access/Equity of Access: The hypothetical ideal situation in which all citizens are afforded full and equal access to public information and information technology, regardless of situation, status, or ability.