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Digital exclusion and online accessibility

Posted by Lucy Collins on Feb 26, 2023 3:50 PM

An increasingly digitised world is a problem. As more information and services move online greater digital skills are required to access them and some members of our population are excluded because they lack the skills to be able to confidently and safely navigate the digital world. 

A study by the Office of National Statistics found that internet non-users, i.e. people who haven’t used the internet in the last 3 months, accounted for 10% of the UK population or 5.3 million adults. That’s a lot of people! 

The demographic group most impacted by this move online, is individuals with disabilities. Across all age groups, adults with disabilities make up a large proportion of adult internet non-users. 

In 2017, 56% of adult internet non-users were disabled, much higher than the proportion of disabled adults in the UK population as a whole, which in 2016 to 2017 was estimated to be 22%. 

For internet non-users aged between 16 and 24 years, 60% were disabled in 2017, a proportion that is the same as for those aged 75 years and older. 

While the proportion of adults with disabilities who are internet non-users has been on the decline, it remains higher than non-disabled adults. 

How to improve digital access for people with disabilities 

There are many factors at play that can contribute to digital exclusion. Lack of interest, the expense of an internet connection and digital devices, privacy concerns or a self-reported lack of skills or knowledge. 

While some of these are out of our control, and many users will always prefer to interact with organisations offline, there is a LOT companies can do to improve the accessibility of their digital services. 

Here are our top two recommendations: 

1. Build your digital service in an accessible way 

Users with disabilities will use a range of assistive technologies and techniques to help them navigate the online world. These include screen readers, braille embossers, screen magnifiers and keyboard shortcuts. For these technologies to work effectively, websites need to be coded correctly, so information and functionality is displayed in a meaningful way. 

This includes programmatically determining the functionality of buttons and input fields, providing text alternatives for image and video content and using code to convey how information is structured on the page (e.g. headings and interactive functionality).  

If a website is not correctly coded, assistive technologies will be unable to interpret it and users with disabilities will be excluded from engaging with your brand.  

2. Write content in an accessible way 

There are a lot of words on the internet. It is well recognised that users don’t read web pages in full; they scan them picking out headings and keywords that meet their needs. 

If you are using a screen reader or have trouble taking in large amounts of content, this scanning behaviour is much harder, and tackling a long page of text is a time consuming, frustrating and overwhelming experience.   

To improve accessibility of content and the online experience of all your users, we suggest: 

  • Removing content not useful to users 
  • Improving readability of text by shortening sentences and using fewer complex words (aim for a fog index of no more than 10) 
  • Front load sentences with keywords so users can quickly identify if the content is relevant to them 
  • Follow plain English guidance 
  • Avoid jargon, acronyms and internal terminology 

Conduct accessibility testing to assess your digital service 

The best way to ensure your website, app or software is accessible is to combine an accessibility audit with usability testing with disabled users. 

An audit will assess your site against the WCAG 2.2 guidelines. As a minimum, websites need to comply with all guidelines at Level A and AA. This considers both the programmatic structure of your site and how the content is written. 

But an audit will only take you to compliance; it will not necessarily guarantee your website offers a great user experience. To do this, you need to involve disabled people in your testing. And ideally you should do this right from the start of the development process.    

The best part about conducting accessibility testing? It will improve the online experience for all your users! 


WebAIM screen reader survey 9

ONS Exploring the UK’s digital divide 

DWP Family Resource Survey 2016/17


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