Digital Inclusion: The Push to Expand Internet Access to All People

If you’re one of the approximately 4 billion smartphone users in the world, and you access the internet daily (if not hourly), it might be easy to forget that about half the world’s population has no access to the internet.

People who lack access to the internet are considered “digitally excluded,” meaning that they can’t enjoy all the ways that being digitally connected can enhance one’s life. Every day, they miss out on opportunities to interact, learn, and grow. Digital inclusion is the combined effort of educators, policymakers, and others to provide internet access to digitally excluded populations.

Common reasons for digital exclusion include a lack of public infrastructure or utilities, poverty, disability, and language barriers. Digital inclusion requires action — from grassroots outreach efforts to federal funding allocations — in order to expand internet access to all members of society.

In this blog, we’ll review the components of digital inclusion, why digital inclusion matters, and how website designers and developers can contribute to a better experience for all users.

What is Digital Inclusion?

Digital inclusion is the concept that all individuals and groups should have the opportunity, equipment, and technology to access the internet and interact with content.

Digital Inclusion vs. Digital Equity: What’s the Difference?

Digital inclusion is the first step in helping people enjoy the benefits of being online. The pillars of digital inclusion are:
  • Affordable broadband internet service
  • Internet-ready devices that accommodate the user
  • Access to training
  • Quality technical support
  • Applications and content that encourage engagement
  • Online content that is accessible to users with disabilities

Digital equity is the concept that people need digital access in order to be fully engaged in their civic and cultural life and to increase their options for growth and learning. For example, people who have digital access can easily apply for jobs, learn what’s happening in their communities, read news from around the world, and research educational opportunities.

For people who have a disability that limits their offline opportunities, digital inclusion and digital equity are especially important. With access to the internet, and with site content that’s designed for ease of use, people with disabilities may be able to achieve a higher level of self-sufficiency and enjoy an improved quality of life.

Why is Digital Inclusion Important?

Digital inclusion helps people and communities in a variety of ways. Internet access has been associated with higher educational attainment, better health outcomes, and greater civic involvement.

For children — especially those who are learning remotely — access to high-speed internet and modern devices can greatly improve their engagement and progress. (In 2020, many families and educators struggled with how to provide a meaningful e-learning experience in areas where the internet wasn’t available, or when it was unaffordable).

Web accessibility expands opportunities for people with disabilities — they can order products online, schedule appointments, read the local news, and enjoy countless other features that simplify daily life.

Internet accessibility increases self-sufficiency. Users can explore new interests, find answers to questions, and locate the information they need to resolve problems.

Who is Impacted By Digital Inclusion?

Broadly, digital inclusion impacts everyone in some sense. For example, e-retailers benefit from more people being able to access their website and buy their products. But more specifically, these findings from the Pew Research Center reveal which population groups would most benefit from digital inclusion:
  • Seniors — 25% of people age 65 and older do not use the internet
  • People with a high school education or less — 14% do not use the internet
  • People who earn less than $30,000 per year — 14% do not use the internet
It’s important to note that people who have disabilities may be included in one or more of the above categories. A disability may make education and employment difficult, which can lead to low-paying work. About 70% of people who are blind or have low vision are unemployed, and the combination of poverty and visual impairment can create a profound barrier to digital inclusion.

The 3 Elements of Digital Inclusion

1. Access
  • Access doesn’t just mean physical access to a computer. It means that all of the supporting elements — such as local broadband service — are available and affordable.
  • The importance of access is that it’s the first step in digital inclusion, but it’s not the only step.
  • Example: If a community program offers free iPads for high school students in underserved communities, organizers could partner with other groups to ensure those students can access the internet and understand how to use an iPad. Training would ideally include technical instructions, along with pointers about how to conduct online research.
2. Adoption
  • Digital inclusion adoption refers to digital literacy (knowing how to use the internet) and internet safety. (Adoption may also refer to a person’s willingness to pay for internet access or to learn how to use it).
  • Adoption is important because without knowledge of how the internet works, users won’t be able to get what they need from it, and they may end up in a negative situation.
  • Example: A new internet user may not know how to gauge the trustworthiness of a site or how to spot common scams. Training can help people who are new to the internet protect themselves online.
3. Application
  • Application means educational initiatives, public policy, and community touchpoints that encourage and foster digital inclusion.
  • This aspect of digital inclusion is essential because it creates a framework that helps people access and understand the internet.
  • Example: Some states have workforce development programs that provide internet access and hands-on computer and job-search training for free.

How Society Can Increase Digital Inclusion

Digital inclusion requires community buy-in, leadership support, funding, and public awareness campaigns that reach digitally excluded populations.

Strategies to promote access:

  • Non-profit organizations and government agencies can work together to find funding for public-access computer stations.
  • Publicly funded schools and universities could look at ways to expand free Wi-Fi access to surrounding neighborhoods.
  • Policymakers could work toward bringing fast, reliable internet access to rural areas.

Strategies to promote adoption:

  • Designers and developers should follow WCAG and ADA guidelines to create accessible sites, so that users with disabilities can interact with content. Inclusive content elements such as gesture-operated navigation and alternative text (“alt text”) for people who use screen-readers enhance the online experience.
  • User experience designers can simplify site navigation and make call-to-action features more prominent (improvements that benefit all users, not just users who have a disability or are new to the internet).
  • Public officials could offer incentives for broadband providers to offer discounted service based on factors such as income, disability, or geographic area.

Strategies to promote application:

  • Schools, libraries, and government agencies could work toward expanding training — both in-person for new internet users, and online, for people who wish to further their basic skills.
  • Community leaders could look into partnerships with organizations that refurbish computers and equipment, and launch awareness campaigns that help digitally excluded populations connect with resources.
  • Public health entities could look at how to help people access important information and manage records online.

Final Thoughts

In the United States, where about 25% of the population has a disability, website accessibility should be a priority. Internet access shouldn’t be a luxury — it should be available to all people and supported by public policy and infrastructure.

Does your website welcome all users and offer the best experience possible? Are you compliant with WCAG and ADA guidelines? With the right software, you can be confident your site is inclusive of all visitors.

Monsido helps you ensure that your website is inclusive and accessible to all. With our Accessibility module, you can scan your site for common barriers to access according to the WCAG levels and helps you maintain your website's usability for all. Interested in seeing how it works with your own website? Book a demo to learn more.