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Disability Linked To Digital Exclusion And ‘Disengagement’

Levels of home internet access in the UK are directly linked to a wide range of traditional indicators of social exclusion including disability, a digital inclusion seminar at City University, London heard this month.

Ellen Helsper, lecturer in media and communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told the seminar that among the disabled population, 59% do not have home access, compared with just 29% of the general population.

The main theories relating to causes of digital exclusion tend to revolve around cost of access, but surveys show that people tend to offer other reasons for their non-use such as discrimination, Helsper said. Accordingly, the focus of analysts has switched towards models that look beyond access into areas like skills, confidence, attitude and motivation.

People with disabilities have lower confidence levels and lower motivation to use the internet than others, she said. The average score for positive attitude towards internet use stands at 3.1 out of 5 for disabled adults compared to 3.3 for non-disabled adults; and 3.4/5 for disabled teenagers compared with 3.8/5 for non-disabled teenagers.

There are a few encouraging signs, however: research shows that one third of non-users have somebody else who uses the internet for them, so they are part of networks which allow them access to the technology, Helsper said. “In the health and social service sector, this is an important finding”. People with disabilities tend to rely on children for proxy use, whereas people without disabilities tend to rely on friends or colleagues.

One new measure of digital inclusion or exclusion used by academics and researchers is that of digital ‘engagement’, she said. This measures not just whether people have access to the internet, or have the skills or the motivation to use it, but how wide a variety of activities they engage in.

“Engagement views activity in a more social environment, geared around technologies – people exchanging information with each other, for example.” The opposite – disengagement – may sometimes be related to the fact that not much content is available for some social groups, Helsper said. For example the types of jobs some people may be looking for may not be widely advertised on internet job sites.


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