Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

The Ever-Shifting Internet Population: A new look at Internet access and the digital divide

Part 7. The Disabled: A Special Analysis


Disabled Americans face unique challenges as they consider using the Internet, but they also can reap rewards for going online. The Internet offers the promise of greater connection to others, greater access to information, and potentially greater “mobility” through virtual space. But currently, the disabled are less connected than many other groups of Americans.

Some 18% of our survey respondents said they were disabled – a percentage that is very close to the 20% of Americans that the U.S. Census Bureau reports with disabilities. In our survey, just 38% of disabled Americans use the Internet – and about a fifth of them (19%) say their disability makes use of the Internet difficult. This compares to the 58% of all Americans who use the Internet. Of the 62% of disabled people that do not use the Internet, 28% said their disability impaired or made impossible the use of the Internet.9

Other factors are also at play when it comes to Internet use. For instance, researchers Colin Keane and Joel Macht of the Neil Squire Foundation have noted that many of the disabled lack access to adaptive technologies that would help them use computers and retrieve information from Web sites. At times, it is physically hard for the disabled to gain access to wired rooms and buildings. Other times, computer work stations at public sites cannot be adjusted or lack appropriate desks, chairs, software or adaptive hardware to make the computer and Internet more usable. In addition, the disabled as a group are poorer than other Americans and have a hard time affording the extra expense of adaptive technology.

Demographics of disability

The overall population of disabled Americans – Internet users and non-users alike – is quite different from the non-disabled. The disabled are much less likely to be employed full or part time (33% to 73%). They have considerably less education. For instance, 22% of the disabled stopped their education before receiving a high school diploma, compared to 14% of the overall U.S. population. Similarly, 26% of the overall population has college or graduate degrees, compared to 18% of the disabled. The disabled are much more likely than other Americans to be retired (35% versus 12%) and widowed (18% versus 7%). This reflects the fact that the disabled population is much older than the non-disabled population (29% of people with disabilities are 65 years or older, only 11% of people we surveyed without disabilities are this age.)

Disabled Internet users

Users with disabilities tend to be newer to the Internet than their non-disabled counterparts. They are more likely than other Internet users to have access only at home (no doubt because they are less likely to be employed): 58% of disabled users use the Internet from home only, versus 44% of non-disabled.

When the wired disabled do go online, they are just as likely as those without a disability to use email, go to news Web sites, and visit government Web sites. However, they are somewhat less likely to buy a product (52% for the disabled versus 56% for those who are not) and look for leisure activity information (69% versus 74%). Conversely, disabled users are more likely to look for medical information (75% versus 59%), play a game (45% versus 35%) and research online for information about a particular person (37% versus 26%).

Disabled non-users

The disabled who do not use the Internet show less interest in gaining access than those non-users without disabilities. When asked their intentions, 40% of disabled respondents said they definitely would not ever go online, compared to only 24% of non-disabled respondents.

The reasons the disabled give for not using the Internet differ from those of non-disabled people. Disabled non-users are more likely than other non-users to say they don’t need the Internet and they are worried about online pornography, credit card theft, and fraud. They are also less likely to state that lack of time is a reason.

Of course, it is likely that those who are disabled have a harder time getting to places with access to the Internet, since travel is often more taxing for them than for the non-disabled. Indeed, 24% of disabled people said that getting to places in the community with Internet access was difficult for them, compared to 15% of the non-disabled. In addition, disabled people were less likely to know of a place in their neighborhood to get access than people without a disability.

Their perceptions of the Internet

People with disabilities have somewhat different perceptions of the Internet than the rest of the population. Twenty-one percent of disabled people strongly agreed that the Internet is confusing and hard to use. Only 9% of non-disabled people strongly agreed with this assertion. Also, 25% of people with disabilities said they strongly agreed that Internet access is too expensive, whereas 18% of people without disabilities strongly agreed with that statement.

Family and friends and the Internet

Disabled people are less likely than other Americans to have close family or friends who use the Internet. Asked how many people the respondent knew who used the Internet, 48% of the disabled said most of the people they knew went online, compared to 62% of the non-disabled. A large number of the disabled have friends or family who go online (80%) – but this is still a lower number than those without disabilities (89%) who say they have friends of family who go online.

Disability and technology

The disabled seem to be more attached than others to the technology and media in their homes. They are more likely than other Americans to say it would be very hard to give up their telephones, televisions, cable TV hookups, and their favorite newspapers. However, computers are the exceptions to this trend. Fifty-six percent of the disabled have or use a computer, compared to 72% of all Americans. Disabled people were less likely than non-disabled people to say it would be very hard to give up their computer (17% of disabled people and 28% of non-disabled people said this.)

Disability, income and the cost of adaptive technology

The disabled have significantly lower incomes than those without disabilities. Our survey found that 29% of the disabled population live in a household with less than $20,000 of income annually. That compares to only 12% of those without disabilities with incomes this low.

Income can be a very limiting factor when it comes to purchasing information technology, particularly specialized technology. It can cost thousands of dollars to buy adaptive technologies such as magnified or large monitors, hands-free mice and keyboards, and speech synthesizers. A head-mounted mouse can cost 10 times what a normal mouse costs, and a large button keyboard can run 5 times the cost of a normal keyboard. Braille interface machines cost over $3,000, and magnified screens are selling for nearly $2,000. Considering that people with disabilities have, on average, significantly smaller disposable incomes, the cost of adaptive technology in addition to the normal costs of computers and Internet access can be a significant barrier to getting online. 

In one of our focus group interviews, a woman expressed interest in learning how to use the Internet. She suffers from diabetes and wants to go online to research her medical condition. Yet her illness has impaired her eyesight, and she cannot see a normal monitor. She said she hopes that the program she is in will provide her with a large-screen monitor and adaptive software so she can finally go online. However, the expense of such technology is likely to be too great for most community technology programs.

The benefits of the Internet for the disabled

While a disability may act as an obstacle for those wanting to go online, it can also be a motivation. The Internet can be an important resource for people who have difficulty leaving their homes. With information, shopping, and social resources available in their households, this lifeline can make the world more accessible for the disabled.

We interviewed one older woman just starting to learn about the Internet. She said she thinks the Internet is “a blessing for old people.” In learning how to use the Internet, she hopes to once again pursue her life’s passion: historical research. While her age limits her mobility, she hopes to visit libraries and archives online. Without Internet access, her condition would prevent her from continuing her favorite pastime. “I feel this computer will free me,” she said.

  1. It is important to note that respondents in our survey self-defined themselves as disabled or not; they were asked if they had any disability, handicap, or chronic disease kept them from participating fully in work, school, housework, or other activities, and they then answered yes or no. In addition, respondents who said they were disabled were also allowed to self-define their disability as one that impairs the use of the Internet or one that does not. Thus, it is likely that some individuals (especially those who have little knowledge of the Internet and computers) believe their disability impairs Internet use when in fact it does not.
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