The growing trend to provide services online is generating an increasing gap between advances in new technology and disabled people’s ability to take advantage of them, according to a new report.
The strategy document from the e-accessibility charity AbilityNet warns that, as advanced digital technology begins to dominate entertainment, communication, shopping and work, many disabled and older people are falling behind.
The Mind the Digital Gap report says that business, government and the third sector are all “driving us to serve ourselves more and more, creating increasingly complex systems for us to use on websites, phones, apps, self-service terminals and now our televisions”.
But it warns that as the variety of “high end digital technology available to us explodes”, there is a growing “capability gap” affecting millions of disabled and older people.
At a parliamentary launch of the charity’s new “strategy for digital inclusion”, Nigel Lewis, chief executive of AbilityNet, said there was a “critically urgent need to address this growing gap” which was “disenfranchising a significant proportion of the UK population”.
He said: “Customers who cannot or do not want to serve themselves will choose suppliers who are more sympathetic to their particular needs, or they will simply do without.”
He pointed to the government’s shift towards online services through its “digital by default” strategy as one area of concern.
He said he was “very worried” by the implications of its new “universal credit” – which will see key means-tested benefits and tax credits combined into a single payment – with most claimants expected to apply and manage their claims online.
His concerns were shared by the work and pensions committee, which in a report this week said the “digital by default” strategy for universal credit “carries a risk that some vulnerable people will have difficulty in accessing their benefit entitlement because they do not know how to make a claim”.
Among its recommendations, AbilityNet calls for more testing of new products and services by disabled and older people “at every stage of the design process”; the creation of a “trusted support service” to help disabled and older people use digital technology effectively; the use of tax incentives to make digital inclusion more attractive; and the embedding of inclusion in training and education for the IT and design industries.
Anne McGuire, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, who hosted the launch event, said that unless there was “some real effort”, a “significant proportion of our population” – many of them disabled or older people – would be “left behind” by advances in digital technology.