Differences in internet access and accessible websites are creating a gap in the employment rate of people with disabilities, even though the prevalence of remote work opportunities has opened the door for them.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has made the digital world more vital for everyday activities, including work, web accessibility for people with disabilities is not guaranteed in the same way as physical commercial spaces.
Disabled workers are 13% less likely to have access to the Internet at home and 11% less likely to own a computer device, according to one recent report of the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, which further reduces their employment prospects. At the same time, when the unemployment rate doubled between the end of 2019 and the end of 2020, workers with disabilities became unemployed and more likely to remain unemployed than workers without disabilities.
Disabled workers who did have internet access were more likely to stay in work, the report found. Meanwhile, there was no association between internet access and job retention among employees without disabilities.
The main barrier to Internet access for people with disabilities was cost.
Poverty is at the heart of the problem, according to Karel Catherine, director of corporate and government relations at the National Organization on Disability. With fewer job opportunities to start with, people with disabilities are less likely to spend disposable income on Internet access.
“The digital divide is real for people with disabilities, but it can really be seen as a symptom of wider inequality,” Catherine said.
Amid calls from advocates, websites and major employers are increasingly making their digital ecosystems more accessible.
But web pages are often still inaccessible, especially for the blind or partially blind. The inability to access recruitment websites or digital products used at work can be another barrier to finding work, Catherine said.
“It seems clear now that it should be accessible for architectural work, but it’s still not clear to a website designer that that should be accessible as well,” Catherine said.
By 2021, 82% of companies had committed to making digital content accessible to users with disabilities, according to the Equality Index for the Disabled, a business benchmarking tool for the inclusion of people with disabilities, operated 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 for people with disabilities.
Making the Internet and the workplace more accessible can be easy, said Jason Taylor, chief innovation officer at UsableNet, which works with companies to make their products more accessible.
Websites and software must be navigable without a mouse, and have ways to communicate interactive page changes to, for example, be more accessible to the blind. By adding video captions, training videos can also be made accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing.
Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires places with “public lodging and commercial facilities” to be accessible. When the ADA went into effect in 1990, it generally meant actions such as adding ramps to commercial buildings. But in the digital age – in which most applications are submitted online – an inaccessible web page can easily prevent a disabled person from applying for a job for which they are qualified.
“The employment world today compared to 30 years ago has changed,” Taylor said.
That was especially true in the wake of the pandemic, when many companies went virtual to maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of the disease.
At the start of the pandemic, a spate of lawsuits were filed under Title III of the ADA by people claiming they could not access websites to purchase goods or services, it said. Shira Blankan employer attorney at Epstein Becker & Green PC.
At a time when personal commerce is limited, it is even more important for people with disabilities to be able to use websites to get goods and services they need than to have access to physical establishments, the lawsuits so-called. The law isn’t really regulated in this area, Blank said.
The Ministry of Justice published in March: guidance on the accessibility of the websitey, establishing the Biden administration’s position that Title III of the ADA does apply to websites. The DOJ and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also issued: another accompaniment last month stipulating that employers have a responsibility to inspect artificial intelligence devices for disability bias and must have plans to provide reasonable accommodations.
That guidance, as well as the ODEP report, underscores the disability rights administration’s priorities, Blank said.
“I think it just goes to show that these federal agencies are coming together to create an environment where they try to advocate a little bit more for the rights of people with disabilities,” she said.