Pew: Disability or illness hinders many Americans from using the Internet

President Barack Obama talks with, from left, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., Cheryl Sensenbrenner, James Langevin, D-R.I., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in the Oval Office, July 26, 2010, prior to an event on the South Lawn commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks with, from left, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., Cheryl Sensenbrenner, James Langevin, D-R.I., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in the Oval Office, July 26, 2010, prior to an event on the South Lawn commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

A new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project includes the sobering figure that potentially hundreds of thousands of Americans live with disabilities or illness that makes it harder or impossible for them to use the Internet. According to Pew, some two percent of American adults are unable to fully make use of one of the greatest platforms for collective action in history. ‘

The survey was based on a national survey of 3,001 U.S. adults in September 2010. Here are three other data points to consider:

  • 27% of American adults live with a disability that interferes with activities of daily living.
  • 54% of adults living with a disability use the internet, compared with 81% of adults who report none of the disabilities listed in the survey.
  • 41% of adults living with a disability have broadband at home, compared with 69% of those without a disability.

“This is a correlation that we observed, not causation,” said Susannah Fox (@SusannahFox), associate director at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “We don’t know that it’s the disability that’s causing that difference, but we do know that it’s not just lower levels of education or income, or age, all of which tend to depress Internet access rates. It’s something else.”

This research should be considered in the context of an ongoing matter before the Department of Justice (DoJ): the modernization of the Americans with Disabilities Act. When the Act was first passed, the DoJ stated in the preamble to the original 1991 ADA regulations that those regulations should be interpreted to keep pace with developing technologies. (28 CFR part 36, app. B.)

Needless to say, the Internet has come a long way since 1991. The power of technology and equality came into sharp focus this year on the 20th anniversary of the ADA. Iif the United States government intends to go forward with creating online open government platforms for all the people, accessibility and access issues are part of that picture. The country will need ability maps and to consider how to balance the accessibility needs of all Americans as more civic engagement goes digital. Disability advocates agree that transparency without accessibility would be a poor version of Gov 2.0.

“The reality is that so much of what’s happening today in the world is online,” said Fox. “There’s a real difference between a someone in their 70s who doesn’t want to add the Internet to their life and someone in their 20s who can’t go online because of a disability.”

When the ADA was passed, Congress contemplated that the Department of Justice would apply the statute in a manner that evolved over time, and delegated authority to the Attorney General  of the United States to put forward regulations to carry out the Act´s broad mandate. How the Department of Justice does so is still a matter for debate.  The DoJ is considering extending the enforcement of the ADA to include websites operated by more entities, including the following list of 12 categories of “places of public accommodation” covered by the ADA from

(1) An inn, hotel, motel, or other place of lodging, except for an establishment located within a building that contains not more than five rooms for rent or hire and that is actually occupied by the proprietor of the establishment as the residence of the proprietor;
(2) A restaurant, bar, or other establishment serving food or drink;
(3) A motion picture house, theater, concert hall, stadium, or other place of exhibition or entertainment;
(4) An auditorium, convention center, lecture hall, or other place of public gathering;
(5) A bakery, grocery store, clothing store, hardware store, shopping center, or other sales or rental establishment;
(6) A laundromat, dry-cleaner, bank, barber shop, beauty shop, travel service, shoe repair service, funeral parlor, gas station, office of an accountant or lawyer, pharmacy, insurance office, professional office of a health care provider, hospital, or other service establishment;
(7) A terminal, depot, or other station used for specified public transportation;
(8) A museum, library, gallery, or other place of public display or collection;
(9) A park, zoo, amusement park, or other place of recreation;
(10) A nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate private school, or other place of education;
(11) A day care center, senior citizen center, homeless shelter, food bank, adoption agency, or other social service center establishment; and
(12) A gymnasium, health spa, bowling alley, golf course, or other place of exercise or recreation.

The public comment period for the Department of Justice’s notice of rulemaking regarding this extension will end on Monday, January 24th. The questions being contemplated by the DoJ are straightforward and yet potentially significant, with respect to their effects upon businesses: Do they operate a website? If so, does that website also have to be accessible?

The considerations and trade offs involved in answering those questions are complex but important. For people for whom accessibility is more than a “nice to have” feature, however, those answers will be meaningful.

“It’s not just the group today that’s having trouble going online,” said Fox, ” it’s about how the conversation today contributes towards building towards the future.”

POSTSCRIPT: Audrey Watters, a staff writer at ReadWriteWeb, referenced this article in her post, “Pew Internet Study Points to Challenges Americans with Disabilities Have with Internet Access.” One of her readers, John Mill, replied to Watters on Twitter: “Thanks for posting that. This inspires me as I’m applying for an internship and need to talk about greatest challenge faced by students with disabilities and how I might do something about it.”

Mill said that “many things have actually gone backward” with regards to Web accessibility. “Facebook, for one. Probs with Captcha for another.” When reached for further comment, he tweeted more about the challenge of navigating the social Web as a blind man:

I’d say the single biggest issue is the rate of change on websites and in software apps. Our screen-readers are constantly playing catch-up, and soon as they do another update is released that breaks things! With regards to social networking, FB is difficult also, as they change regularly. New Twitter is all but [unusable], but enterprising blind devs have created a software program called Qwitter client, found at Those are a few of my thoughts. Apparently I could write a book!

According to Mill, the new version of Twitter, set to be rolled out to all users this year, “causes screen-readers to become sluggish and unresponsive. Also hard to find where to write the new tweets.” With respect to Facebook, “I can’t really access the main site, largely because I’m not sure where anything is!” tweeted Mills. “The mobile site works well enough, for the most part. All those games and such are out, but I mostly use it to update statuses and message friends and family.”

9 thoughts on “Pew: Disability or illness hinders many Americans from using the Internet

  1. Another aspect of this that would have implications for all citizens is the Department of Justice is considering extending accessibility requirements to local government websites. Most local agencies I know are completely supportive of ADA, just have some real concerns over implementation and funding in this economic environment. There will be implementation challenges for sure, but I’m optimistic that it will lead to a more usable web for every person in the future.

  2. Kristy, just a thought but do you think that such a mandate could force more sharable code and create a more collaborative environment? I wouldn’t suggest that all gov websites should look exactly the same, but it has always been criticism of mine to see so much money gone into building so many local gov sites when an off the shelf, ADA compliant option could be developed and maintained through a small subscription service provided by a federal agency. Requiring .gov sites to use a standard, compliant option could help bring some sanity to the mess. Thoughts?

  3. I think any legislation needs to consider a number of factors. A significant one is the nature of local government websites in terms of scope. Many websites are a compilation of numerous separate web applications and services developed both internally and by external vendors. A CMS platform could be standardized and compliant, but that’s just the shell. Many local government sites include citizen relationship management portals, online police reporting, and GIS data just to name a few. These websites may interface with dozens of these systems. An important question to consider is – to what extent would the scope of accessibility requirements include these other web-based applications? If the vendor does not offer an accessible version, what options would the local government have for offering these services? My prediction is that this will all result in many opportunities for both third party tech companies and local governments to evolve and creatively meet these challenges.

    • I love the free market. And I wouldn’t ever want to see the opportunity for those challenges to be addressed by vendors and local governments.

      However, we have some great examples of how an App Marketplace for such a “shell” could work nicely. Vendors and still develop great ideas as well as local governments, but they would do so within the framework provided. We are talking about application frameworks so I don’t see how it would be limiting. I see instead how it would make finding and choosing great applications much easier and probably more cost effective. Vendors wouldn’t need to build to suite 20 different CMSs and governments need only shop a market of apps.

      I understand it is an ambitious proposal which is why I think that the Federal government would be a great candidate for such a project.

      • A marketplace of apps available for government sounds like a great idea. One challenge I can think of – a payment processing app (for instance) is great, until it doesn’t talk with my backend organization-wide financial system because the financial software uses its own proprietary API. Replacement of financial software so ingrained in the workflow of our city (manages citizen funds, payroll, budget reporting, etc.) would cost millions. So yeah, it probably would take a federal government mandate to require existing vendor systems to interface with a common framework, if that’s possible on so many disparate systems. The feds and local government also need to work more closely together on solving web technology challenges like this (we’re not even allowed to play in the sandbox).

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