What would your life be like without the internet? Not if it didn’t exist at all, but if you were locked out of it? Would your days be different? Unrecognizable, even? Keeping your answers to that in mind, do you think access to the internet is a human right? Do we need to be able to access it to fully participate in modern society? To answer “yes” to these questions would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
Living without internet
Globally, over 40% of people still do not have access to the internet. That lack of access and the issues it creates have helped motivate digital equity initiatives like Tech Goes Home and the Good Things Foundation.
Having no access to the internet creates problems in many parts of modern life. In the UK, bank branches are closing, forcing many to do their banking online. Many utilities now require internet access to request or amend services, or get better deals. Civil services, such as registering to vote, are increasingly online. As this continues, people who have no access to broadband or who have limited access to mobile data fall behind—this often includes homeless people, elderly people, and those on low incomes who are already operating at a disadvantage.
In the UK, only 37% of people living in social housing are online. Approximately 1 in 5 adults with a disability in the UK have not used the internet recently, and they make up half of the people who have not accessed the internet in the last three months. Globally, the UN target for affordable mobile data is 2% of monthly income for 1GB data, and yet many countries are still nowhere near reaching this goal. Not having access to the internet is expensive, locking you out of essential services and a surfeit of helpful information. Giving people full access to the splendors and knowledge of the online world should be imperative for everyone who works on it.
Digital exclusion is when someone is unable or unwilling to access information and services online. In the UK, 10% of the adult population was digitally excluded in 2018. The number of people in the UK lacking basic digital skills is decreasing, but in 2018, 8% of adults in the UK (4.3 million people) were estimated to have zero basic digital skills, which means they are unable to do things like buy items online, verify information, or send an email. Women are more likely to have no basic digital skills.
Being unable to send an email, submit an application online, or use a government site is a huge barrier to civic and societal engagement. Shopping in person, rather than online, can mean you are consistently overcharged for your purchase by as much as 13%. Not knowing how to use computers can mean you earn less in the first place. Not being able to use the internet can mean that you spend more time doing tasks such as registering to vote, paying council tax in the UK, or researching your next holiday.
Being able to access the internet has social and psychological ramifications too. Loneliness is well documented as a risk factor for a number of health issues, as well as early death. Being online can help you feel less alone. Half of all people with disabilities surveyed report feeling lonely in the UK, and a quarter of them are lonely every day. People with disabilities are more likely to be a captive audience to apps and websites using their data inappropriately or engaging in other unethical practices. This may be because they rely on a particular site to interact with other people with disabilities, because they lack the tools to visit other sites, or lack other suitable websites or apps to use.
Richer households are more likely to have full basic digital skills. The UK Office for National Statistics found that people without basic digital skills are three times as likely to be in low-income bands. In 2018, 12% of 11-to-18-year-olds had no broadband access on a tablet or computer, which 68% of them said made it difficult to do homework. Further, households in which one or more of their members have a disability make up half of those living in poverty in the UK.
Provide non-online options for vital services
If you work in government, food supply, healthcare, or utilities, there is no excuse for not providing offline options. In doing so you are excluding some of the most marginalized people. The internet is amazing, but it is not the only way to share information.
A non-exhaustive list of other barriers
Having access to the internet in the first place is one issue, and feeling welcome, or even safe is quite another. Even when your broadband connection is as good as can be hoped for, there are many other ways you can be discouraged or stopped from using the internet.
Trolling and threats
Online harassment is one of many barriers stopping people from accessing the internet. Diane Abbott, the first black woman Member of Parliament (MPs) in the UK, received almost half (45.14%) of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the run-up to the 2017 General Election that decided how voters would be represented in Parliament and which party would govern. Black and Asian women MPs got 35% more abusive tweets than white women MPs. The abuse directed at Dianne Abott amounted to 10 times as much as was received by any other female MP, according to an Amnesty International study.
Mermaids is a charity that supports transgender children and their parents in the UK. Their CEO Susie Green—herself the parent of a transgender child—has been targeted with abuse and threats. The rise in abusive and threatening comments led to Mermaids’ Twitter account having to block up to 20 accounts a day.
Trolling isn’t an easy problem to fix. Allowing users to block certain words and hide certain replies on Twitter is a start, but listening to people from marginalized backgrounds and their complaints and ideas would be another critical place to begin.
We need to think long and hard about what good moderation looks like and what guidelines work in online spaces to ensure those accessing them don’t have to wade through a tide of bigotry.
Sidelining and hiding certain groups
Information and support online are vital for at-risk LGBT people, whether to help them escape dangerous situations, access support, or find community. Yet in schools, words relating to LGBT issues are often blocked. On YouTube, videos relating to LGBT issues are demonetized, age-restricted, or even removed. This isn’t because the content is sexually explicit or not safe for work. It’s just discrimination. TikTok recently admitted it actively discriminates against certain kinds of users—namely the fat, queer, disabled, low-income, and “ugly”—in certain feeds, under the guise of paternalistic protection from bullying.
People with disabilities are the original life hackers because our motivation is so high. If we don’t hack we often go without.
Liz Jackson, “Designing for Inclusivity”
Many people with disabilities rely on screen readers and screen reader compatible sites to use the internet. Screen readers can be prohibitively expensive; while there are free options, one of the most popular screen readers at the time of writing costs nearly $1200 for a professional license. Even with incredible innovation coming from within the disabled community, there’s more that everyone else can do. In their February 2020 evaluation, WebAIM found that 98.1% of the top million websites had detectable WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2 errors.
The most common WCAG 2 failures—such as missing alt text for images, having empty links, and missing form labels—would be relatively simple to fix. Because they’re shared among most websites, concentrating on fixing them would have a huge overall benefit for the internet. But as long as web accessibility standards are applied without rigor, aspects of a vast number of sites remain inaccessible even once users have a screen reader or other assistive technology.
Inclusion is just as pertinent as accessibility, and tackling only one side of the equation will leave some people just as locked out. Accessibility without inclusion is not real accessibility. The curb cut effect, wherein improving access for people with disabilities improves access for all, isn’t the only reason to increase web accessibility. We have a moral responsibility as tech workers to use any privilege we may have to facilitate, respond to, and support the efforts of marginalized people who are working to carve out accessible spaces for themselves.
Hostile conditions, created or reinforced by engineering and design choices, make being on the internet harder for people who are queer, of color, or disabled. They make it more difficult to access life-saving spaces, social spaces, and civic spaces—both on and offline. Thorough accessibility and real inclusion are the solutions to these problems. To survive, marginalized people must work both against and through the abuse and accessibility issues they face on online platforms, whereas everyone else gets to use the internet as they wish. This replicates the injustices of offline in the online world.
An incomplete list of solutions
Center the voices and experiences of the marginalized
There isn’t one easy solution but to start finding the solutions that are possible we need to center the voices and experiences of the marginalized. Marginalized people with insights to share aren’t hard to find when you start listening. They are your next users, your future developers, your fledgling marketing team. Excluding them reduces your options, your appeal, and your breadth of ideas.
Hire teams that are diverse on every axis
Hiring inclusively creates teams full of people who aren’t like you or each other. And those kinds of teams build better products, bring better ideas to the table, and better reflect the user base of the majority of products. It is important to remember that diversity isn’t just about race or hiring women; there are neurodiverse people, people with physical disabilities, people of other genders, people from various backgrounds, and many other marginalizations than could be listed here.
Proactively promote inclusion and harness your team’s diversity
Help disabled and otherwise marginalized people both develop and enforce policies and practices that protect them and allow them to thrive. If there are no disabled people, or otherwise marginalized or underrepresented people on your team, take a hard look at your hiring practices, your work culture, even the layout of your office. If you can’t find these problems, hire experts. Pay specialist consultants and recruiters to root out the problems. This is an investment that makes moral, logical, and business sense. The inclusive team you build will be able to spot potential issues in a way that a squad of people who pattern match to narrow ideas of what a tech worker should look and behave like never would. Create a culture where the marginalized members of your team feel supported, feel heard, and are buoyed through their work with a sense of safety in their workplace.
Avoid legal issues preemptively
Beyonce and Domino’s Pizza were both sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which contains provisions to force the companies involved to change their websites. Beyonce’s case is still in progress, but Domino’s both lost their suit and had their appeal tossed out. Both cases were about visually impaired people being unable to access their sites and complete purchases. Accessibility is often seen as a costly detour from the “real work” of building projects, but that has never and will never be true. You want users, and users of all stripes want to use your products.
The banks HSBC, Metro Bank, and Halifax made it hard for visually impaired users to access all of their services online. When HSBC was told they had made it difficult for a user with visual impairments to access bank statements, they replied, “don’t worry, we’ll send you a video.” The Equality Act 2010 in the UK means that these users can sue. In addition to serving the far more important goal of providing people with disabilities equal access, embracing inclusive design from the outset would have saved these companies time while enhancing their trust among the public rather than putting it at risk. Fixing the content is usually much cheaper for the organization than fighting the matter in court.
Advocate for accessibility and inclusivity in any way you can, be it big or small
Caption your videos, Instagram content, Facebook photos, Twitter photos, conference and meetup talks, etc. Make information needed to access your product or service available in multiple formats. Speak up against problems in your workplace; if an internal hiring tool is hard for you to use, it is hard for others. If one of your websites has errors from WCAG 2’s list, advocate for taking time to fix it. If the gender options available on forms are “man,” “woman,” and “other,” speak up yourself, tell your manager, question whether you need to collect gender information at all. Don’t stay silent.
Test your website with tools, devices, and real end users
Run tools like axe, ChromeLens, and Lighthouse during your build processes. Do manual testing with the actual devices that are used by your end-users, and test with real users with access requirements. If you’re a team of one or a few, ensure that you run these tools from MVP to finished product—the errors that are the easiest to catch and fix will mostly be caught by automated tools, and they are a great start for learning more about accessibility. Websites such as The A11y Project compile resources, and there are other websites, Slack groups, Twitter accounts, and newsletters that are also incredibly helpful for answering any questions. The automated tools will give you the keywords to search for.
Working towards an accessible, inclusive internet
Web accessibility is not an optional extra. What inclusion looks like in practice will depend on your products, your users, and what you intend to achieve, but for it to be real and meaningful in any context, it cannot be an afterthought. Engineering that makes inclusion an afterthought is engineering that operates without morality and in doing so actively enacts harm. The fact that this kind of engineering is commonplace on the internet doesn’t make it OK. It just highlights that the way we have built the web is fundamentally broken. We can do better.
“Wokeness,” at least as conceived by those divorced from the black experience and AAVE, isn’t a great concept. The way it is used in popular culture makes it sound as if being a good person is a switch you flip on and off; you’re woke or ’sleep. But wokeness is not the end state, it’s the beginning of a journey. All the tenets of intersectional feminism, web accessibility, and diversity and inclusion are inextricably tied up in making the web a better place, for all and by all. Access to the internet is essential. Staying woke, and acting on that wokeness, is what will lead us to a better internet for everyone.
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