We have come a long way from the internet’s humble beginnings, today everyone is connected to the internet right. With mobile technology coming a long way, from voice calls and text into mini supercomputers fitting in everyone’s pocket and connection to most aspects of life in real-time, digitally through their phones. With the current coronavirus still hemorrhaging the United States, life has moved online.
As services, education, work, and most forms of communication are carried out over the internet during the lockdown, gaps in digital accessibility have been revealed. This gap has left millions of disabled Americans behind. Disabled persons face technical challenges that non-disabled persons take for granted and very few websites and apps are developed with having disabled users in mind. Just sheer access to technology is more limited among disabled Americans, they are about 3 times more likely to never go online compared to non-disabled people.
People with hearing impairment face issues even when visiting the doctor in a hospital. During the current Covid-19 situation, hospitals in the US are limiting visits for in-person hospital checks, making it even more difficult for people with hearing impairment to get medical help.
In normal circumstances, a hospital needs to provide services for interpretation when for example a deaf person visits the hospital and requires medical attention. Now, during the pandemic, there is an increase in patients in most hospitals around the US, which effectively limits the services a hospital can provide, such as interpretation for patients with hearing impairment.
This limitation sometimes delays access to care, which can be solved by having the patient bring someone along, who for example knows sign language. Unfortunately, this is currently prohibited in most hospitals to decrease the risk of the spreading of the coronavirus.
Many hospitals have adapted to this new, temporary, reality by offering video remote interpreting. However, remote sign language does not work very well if the internet connection is poor and the video feed keeps freezing. This digital gap stemming from poor WiFi or internet connection leaves people with hearing impairment at a disadvantage when needing medical advice.
Almost all universities have moved their classrooms and courses online. This sudden rush to go digital due to the coronavirus has put students with disabilities at a disadvantage, despite laws being in place to ensure equal access to all students alike.
In the case of blind students taking classes, normally they would do so using Braille and tactile diagrams. With the pandemic, many blinds students are overlooked as tests are being given and administered digitally, making it impossible for blind students to take tests.
Looking beyond just disabled people, all schools that have moved online take for granted that every student has access to the internet. As this report suggests, as many as 33 million Americans are living without the internet, certainly a percentage of those are left behind as education has moved online.
Whether it’s medical care, studies, or just general participation in society, disabled Americans are at an even greater disadvantage than usual. While we are quick to adapt to using platforms like Zoom for meetings, we focus very little on solving the major obstacles of the few that are being left behind due to a digital divide. A great effort needs to be made in the technology space to address these issues and close the digital gap we are seeing today.