National Get Online week: are you digitally excluded?

Next year the welfare system will undergo an overhaul as universal credit is introduced. The benefit, replacing six others, includes a new requirement to apply for benefits online. With millions of people having never used the internet, however, it raises the question of how those not online will manage.

(From The Guardian, see full article by Claire Burke).

Universal credit is just one example of how, as our society becomes increasingly digitalised, those who are not online are at risk of becoming excluded. And it’s not just a case of people opting not to be online.

This year there were 3.91 million disabled adults who had never used the internet, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. This is just under half of the 7.82 million adults who had never used the internet. Ian Lyons, from the Shaw Trust, which supports disabled and disadvantaged people live more independently, says many websites are not accessible for people with a disability.

The trust, which encourages organisations to make their websites user friendly, has a team of around 20 people with disabilities who test the accessibility of websites. Mike Taylor, who is blind, is a member of the testing team. He said the problem is mainly with comparison sites, social media sites and online financial services, such as mortgage calculators, insurance quote tools and online banking.

Screen readers can help people with visual impairments or who are blind use the internet, as they interpret what is being displayed on the screen. However, Taylor says security settings for online banking sites can prevent screen readers working: “The screen reader will speak what’s displayed on the screen; that’s all down to how a page is coded. With banking sites there is often additional software it suggests a user can download as an extra layer of detection. But it’s so secure it stops the screen reader working.”

Taylor says links that do not say where they are going cause problems, as do lots of pop up adverts. Some websites are also badly designed for keyboard-only users, such as people with motor disabilities, making navigation difficult.

Lyons, national sales manager (for web accessibility team), says organisations can be reluctant to invest in making their sites more accessible. “They think, ‘I can’t see what’s in it for me and nothing will happen if I don’t do it’,” he says. However, he says there are a couple of banks trying to address the problem.

The trust, which works with both the public and private sector, held a two-day workshop in Stratford last month, attended by representatives from banks and financial services companies. While there are Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, Lyons wants web accessibility to be more strongly enforced. Taylor adds: “Over the past three years there’s more of an awareness, but there’s still a long way to go.”

The internet has provided a way for people who might not normally meet but who share a common interest to interact. Disability campaigners have used the web to this end, as have mental health campaigners.

Mark Brown is editor of One in Four magazine, which is aimed at people with mental health difficulties. He says one of the benefits of being online is meeting other people who have gone through similar problems.

However he says: “The issue for people with mental health difficulties online is they might be specifically online to do mental health stuff. It’s quite a driver on one hand to connect with other people who have had similar experiences, but it leaves you open to prejudice attitudes. Sometimes people are seduced into the idea that online is a powerful platform for changing attitudes but they are unprepared for the kickback, the backlash.”

Digital exclusion is also an issue affecting older people. Last month, the thinktank Policy Exchange published its report Simple Things, Done Well, on digitial inclusion. It said four out of 10 people aged 65 or over do not have access to the internet at home, and 5.4 million have never used the internet.

However Age UK, points out that 40% of people aged 65 and over use a computer once a week or more, compared with 17% in 2006. David Mortimer, head of digital inclusion, says for older people, “the biggest barrier is not seeing any benefit in it. There are also feelings that it is being forced on them by society.”

As well as complete beginners, Mortimer says Age UK also wants to encourage “narrow users”: “If you can email, that’s fine, but if you want to buy your shopping from a supermarket because it’s becoming difficult to get to the supermarket, entering financial details is a bit of a step. That can seem a bit daunting.”

He says while there are a number of initiatives to help older people develop IT skills, “we still find the need outstrips the capacity. There is no clear-cut government funding for these classes.

“So much of life can be enhanced by being online. Having access to a full broad range of society means accessing that online.”

This week is National Get online week organised by Online Centres Foundation.

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