How accessible is the internet, really?

Disability keyboard

Broadband is about to become a whole lot more accessible if the government’s new Digital Economy Bill goes through. There’ll be a legal right to fast broadband for everyone, and a cut to the cost of installing cables and masts – more Brits will be able to get online than ever.

Accessibility is a big issue for the internet right now. The new bill covers it from one angle, but what about people who struggle to access the internet because of a disability?

Disabled people are a group often left behind in the 'digital divide' - which is a shame because they're also one of the groups who can benefit the most from the internet. It provides access to resources, like the NHS and support groups. It's an easier way to communicate, especially at times when going out isn't an option. It's got more accessible versions of things, such as audio books. It lets you shop online. It makes it possible to work from home. And it's useful for literally all the other reasons that anyone could want to use the internet for - like reading the broadbandchoices blog, for example.

The benefits are backed up by academia: multiple studies have shown that the 'net can improve both the "level and quality of communication with others" and sense of independence in disabled people. Which is academia talk for it's a good thing.

What makes a disability a disability is that it impedes your access to basic things - and sadly, the internet is often one of those things. The good news is that the situation is improving, but barriers are still there.

To make things even worse, disabled people are statistically more likely to be poorer. So along with physical barriers, costs are even more of a barrier than they are for non-disabled people. Oh, and charity Scope estimates that disabled people have extra costs in their life that average around £550 per month.

Young couple doing bills

Things ain't looking good.

Figures last year said that 27% of disabled people in the UK have never used the internet - compared to only 11% of non-disabled Brits. Not a particularly surprising figure when you look at the context.

So what's holding back that extra percentage? Is the internet really that inaccessible? Let's take a look at what it's like to use the internet as a disabled person.

Step 1: Getting connected

Thankfully, your chances of being able to get an internet connection at all are high in the UK. Broadband is more widely available than ever, so getting connected could genuinely be as simple as ordering a package and waiting for it to be installed. Most providers' websites are pretty accessible too, and cost-wise, it can be as cheap as "free".

A bigger challenge comes in setting the router up. It's fiddly and a bit complicated, which isn't ideal. A lot of broadband providers, including BT and Virgin Media, offer a service in which someone will come and get your router and all your devices set up when you get a new connection, so that's a big help - but if your provider doesn't offer that, you're out of luck. Oh, and that service often costs extra.

The faff of a new setup could easily put you off switching down the line too, which could mean you end up paying more than you ought to. There's another few quid of that £550 right there.

Step 2: Getting the right equipment

This is arguably the trickiest bit. Not only do you need to get your hands on a computer or tablet - which is costly anyway - but a lot of disabled people also need assistive tech. That could be a special keyboard or mouse, screen-reading software, a braille screen, or something else. That kind of thing is very rarely free, and it's not like you can just pick it up at your local corner shop.

Luckily, a surprising number of disabilities and general accessibility issues can be accommodated by using a tablet rather than a computer, or by downloading the right software. That won't cover everyone, though. Plus, it can be a tad difficult to obtain helpful software in the first place if you can't use your new gadget without them, and a lot of them require training.

The other issue is that new technology can move forward a lot faster than the accommodations can keep up. So you may have to wait a while before you can join in with the hot new gadgets that all your pals are using. Sigh.

Step 3: Surfing the net

Elderly woman using computer

All right, so we've got our internet connection, and we've loaded up a browser on our gadget. But yikes, a lot of websites are still difficult to use if you're disabled. Here's just a short list of stuff you'll find online that can make life harder:

  • Anything that still uses Flash
  • Complex navigation
  • Not enough keyboard support
  • Text that is actually an image - like on an infographic or a logo
  • Forms with time limits
  • Videos that don't have captions or subtitles
  • Bad colour contrast
  • Rubbish or fiddly volume controls
  • Moving animations that won't switch off
  • Pages that don't allow for custom fonts, colours, or style sheets
  • Too many gifs and videos

Most of these things make websites a bit rubbish anyway - which just goes to show that accessibility is there for everyone, regardless of whether you're considered disabled. Forms with time limits are annoying and inconvenient, bad colour contrast makes text hard to read, and cramming a page full of gifs is incredibly naff. (Looking at you, Buzzfeed.)

Again, the situation is improving here. Current design standards - as well as Google - favour accessibility across as many platforms as possible, and a lot are introducing new helpful features. YouTube's subtitles might miss the mark sometimes, but they're better than nothing. Browsers like Chrome and Firefox are expanding their features too to include things like text resizing and coloured filters.

But we've still got a long way to go. The internet is one of the most important things in the world, and everyone deserves to have equal access to it. Let's hope things carry on improving

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