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The Importance of Creating Digital Opportunity for People With Disabilities

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The importance of creating Digital Opportunity for people with disabilities (9/21/00)

Access to computers, the Internet, and other information and communications technologies are becoming increasingly important for full participation in America's economic, political, and social life. If technology is designed to be usable by people with disabilities, it can increase their ability to participate in the workforce and lead independent lives. Examples of technologies that empower people with disabilities include:

  • "Screen readers" for people who are blind;
  • Voice recognition for people who cannot readily use a keyboard due to physical disabilities;
  • Web sites that follow the guidelines of the Web Accessibility Initiative;
  • Captioning of audio and video for people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing;
  • Video description for people who are blind and visually-impaired; and
  • Computers that can be operated by eye movement for people who are unable to speak.

Unfortunately, people with disabilities are often on the wrong side of the "digital divide," as reflected in rates of computer ownership and access to the Internet. When information and communications technologies are not designed to be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, isolation from the economic and social mainstream is intensified. The following statistics illustrate the magnitude of the challenge.

There are 54 million Americans with disabilities

  • According to 1994-95 Census data, 54 million Americans had some level of disability and 26 million have a disability identified as "severe." [Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, "Americans with Disabilities: 1994-95," August 1997.]

People with disabilities are half as likely to have a computer as people without disabilities

  • December 1998 Census data found that 23.9 percent of people with disabilities had access to a computer at home, compared to 51.7 percent of those without disabilities. [Department of Education, Disability Statistics Abstract, "Disability and the Digital Divide," H. Stephen Kaye, July 2000.]

The Internet is more likely to improve the quality of life for adults with disabilities than adults without disabilities

  • According to a recent poll, 48 percent of adults with disabilities believe that the Internet has significantly improved their quality of life, compared to just 27 percent of adults without disabilities. People with disabilities report that the Internet allows them to be better informed and more connected to the world around them, and that it puts them in touch with people who have similar interests and experiences. [The Harris Poll #30, "How the Internet is Improving the Lives of Americans With Disabilities," June 7, 2000.]

Only 31 percent of Americans with "severe" disabilities are working

  • In 1997, 50.2 percent of the estimated 27.7 million Americans ages 21-64 with disabilities were employed. Of those 17.3 million Americans in this age group with severe disabilities, employment reached only 31.1 percent. Nationally, 78.3 percent of all Americans 21-64 were employed. ["Employment, Earnings, and Disability 1991/92, 1993/94, 1994/95 and 1997 Data From the Survey of Income and Program Participation", John M. McNeil, Census Bureau, June 2000.]

Roughly half of those with work disabilities earn less than $25,000 annually

  • 51.0 percent of households with a disabled family member 15 years old and over, have family incomes of below $25,000 per year, as compared to only 26.9 percent of households with no disabilities. [Census Bureau, 1997 Data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation.]

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