Disparities in access to the internet and accessible websites is driving a gap in employment rates for people with disabilities, even as the prevalence of remote working opportunities has opened the door for them.
While the Covid-19 pandemic made the digital world more vital for day-to-day activities—including work—web accessibility for those with disabilities isn’t guaranteed in the same way physical commercial spaces are.
Disabled workers are 13% less likely to have internet access at home and 11% less likely to own a computing device, according to a recent report from the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, which further narrows their opportunities for employment. At the same time, as the unemployment rate doubled between late 2019 and late 2020, workers with disabilities became unemployed and stayed unemployed at higher rates than workers without disabilities.
Workers with disabilities who did have internet access were more likely to stay employed, the report found. Meanwhile, there was no correlation between internet access and employment retention among workers without disabilities.
The primary barrier to internet access for those with disabilities was cost.
Poverty is the root of the issue, according to Charles Catherine, director of corporate and government relations at the National Organization on Disability. With fewer work opportunities to begin with, people with disabilities are less likely to have disposable income to spend on internet access.
“The digital divide is real for people with disabilities, but it really could be seen as a symptom of broader inequities,” Catherine said.
Amid calls from advocates, websites and major employers increasingly are making their digital ecosystems more accessible.
But web pages often are still inaccessible, particularly for those who are blind or partially blind. The inability to access recruiting websites or digital products used on the job can be another barrier to finding work, Catherine said.
“It seems obvious now that for architectural work it has to be accessible, but it’s still not obvious to a website designer that that should also be accessible,” Catherine said.
In 2021, 82% of businesses had a commitment to making digital content accessible to users with disabilities, according to the Disability Equality Index, a corporate benchmarking tool for disability inclusion managed by Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities. But only 59% of participating companies had a requirement to ensure that those products are accessible and usable by people with disabilities.
Making the internet and workplace more accessible can be simple, said Jason Taylor, chief innovation officer at UsableNet, which works with companies to make their products more accessible.
Websites and software need to be navigable without a mouse, and have ways to communicate interactive page changes to be more accessible for the blind, for example. Adding video captioning also can make training videos accessible for the deaf of hard of hearing.
Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires places of “public accommodation and commercial facilities” to be designed to be accessible. When the ADA was enacted in 1990, that generally meant actions like adding ramps to commercial buildings. But in the digital age—where most job applications are filed online—an inaccessible web page could easily prevent a disabled person from applying for a job they’re qualified for.
“The employment world today compared to 30 years ago has changed,” Taylor said.
That’s been especially true in the wake of the pandemic, when many businesses went virtual to maintain social distancing to prevent spread of the disease.
At the start of the pandemic, a wave of lawsuits were filed under Title III of the ADA by people alleging that they couldn’t access websites to purchase goods or services, said Shira Blank, an employer-side attorney at Epstein Becker & Green PC.
At a time when in-person commerce is limited, it’s even more important for people with disabilities to be able to use websites to get goods and services they need than it is for them to have access to brick-and-mortar establishments, the lawsuits alleged. The law isn’t really settled in this area, Blank said.
The Department of Justice in March issued guidance on website accessibility, establishing the Biden administration’s stance that Title III of the ADA does apply to websites. The DOJ and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also issued another guidance last month directing that employers have a responsibility to inspect artificial intelligence tools for disability bias and should have plans to provide reasonable accommodations.
That guidance, as well as the ODEP report, underscore the administration’s disability rights priorities, Blank said.
“I think it just shows that these federal agencies are coming together to create an environment where they are trying to advocate for disability rights a little bit more,” she said.