Online-only public services risks disadvantaging disabled people, campaign group warns

Out-Law News | 15 Oct 2014 | 3:24 pm | 2 min. read

Moving public services entirely online risks disadvantaging a section of society whose members are digitally disengaged because of constraints they face such as health factors, Disability Wales has said.

The campaign group said that up to 40% of disabled people in Wales are "digital excluded" and that this group will face a barrier to accessing public services that are shifted online.

"Major advances in digital inclusion should not lead to a new ‘olde worlde’ with less investment in making the non-virtual world accessible," Rhian Davies, chief executive of Disability Wales, said. "If you can do your shopping online, then why would the local shop need to be accessible? If you can access government documents online, then why would the local Jobcentre Plus need to provide support? If we have a rich array of relationships online, then why do we need local pubs to be accessible?"

"We must take care not to create modern variants of Victorian buildings and slam-door train carriages. So as with everything there are huge positives and huge opportunities and there are massive threats." she said.

A study published earlier this year into digital inclusion in Wales (56-page / 734KB PDF), conducted by researchers based at Sheffield University for the Welsh Government, reported that an estimated 23% of Welsh adults are "digitally disengaged at present".

The report said that Welsh adults have elected not to use the internet through choice, but said that approximately one third of all adults that do not use the internet in Wales are in that position due to constraints they face, including technological, financial or health constraints.

Disabled people were among those who could potentially be disadvantaged if public services are moved entirely online, the report said.

"In an increasingly online world digital disengagement risks separating individuals from the wide range of opportunities and benefits that digital connectivity can bring," the report said. "In policy terms specifically the delivery of many services is moving online with it being anticipated that many government services (for example, Universal Credit) will in the near future only be available online. To be offline therefore poses basic problems of policy access for precisely those vulnerable groups most likely to need to interact with those policies – the elderly, the unemployed, those with disabilities and those with literacy or ICT skills issues for example."

However, the report said that there is an opportunity to help people in vulnerable groups improve their digital literacy.

"The over 65s, the unemployed and those with a limiting long-term illness are identified as key target groups in relation to possible skills interventions," the report said. "It is suggested that the latter two groups may be reachable to policy makers via Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme providers and that interventions around skills may helpfully act to support both employability and digital inclusion agendas."

Disability Wales said that "assistive technologies" can help disabled people interact with online services and that it was important that, in future, disabled people are made fully aware of the technologies available to them and "have the confidence and ability to be part of a ‘barrier free’ digital world along with non-disabled people".