But what does digital equity mean, exactly? The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) defines digital equity as “a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy.” Put simply, it means a state of online equality for all people who use the internet, including those with disabilities.
Digital equity is something that’s constantly evolving. In the beginning, it referred to the ability to access digital technology like home, school and work computers. As the internet became increasingly prevalent, the term's meaning broadened out somewhat to refer not simply to access to technology, but also access to the internet , which was increasingly becoming a necessity. In more recent years the term digital equity tends to focus on ensuring equal access to viable connection speeds and accounting for the skills required to utilize the digital technologies that are constantly transforming.
Achieving digital equity is something that will benefit all of society, and in particular those who currently still find themselves negatively impacted by the barriers that exist in the online realm. Such people are all around us, and include the elderly, as well as those with many different kinds of permanent and short term disabilities.
Another challenge to digital equity becoming a reality is the fact that broadband internet access is still not equally available everywhere, and that in certain areas it is prohibitively expensive. Further, and in a somewhat ironic state of affairs, it is typically rural folks who are most in need of internet information and services that are also the most likely to have no broadband or an unreliable or prohibitively expensive web connection.
Why Digital Equity Is Important
In today’s world, with so many essential day-to-day services only available online, digital equity is more needed than ever. With so much of people’s lives now lived out on the web, the need for digital equity touches every conceivable area of modern existence: from an individual’s ability to access education, healthcare, and essential services that provide safety, security and prosperity, to the overall economic development of industry, and more. Digital equity in one way or another touches pretty much everyone, everywhere, all the time.
Whether you are trying to access a file for work, a course for school, or, well, anything web based, digital equity is something that is necessary to ensure that all people can participate civically and culturally, irrespective of ability.
There are, therefore, many elements to consider when thinking about what digital equity means and how best to go about achieving it. The essential task at hand for online organizations is clear, however: The existing digital divide is an issue that must be tackled if we are to achieve the goal of digital equity, and in order to do this much work still needs to be done in the area of digital inclusion.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at some ways you can address digital equity via practicing digital inclusion on your website.
Tips to Improve Your Website and Promote Better Digital Equity
There are a number of common elements that can negatively impact a website’s digital inclusion, and subsequently damage the overall pursuit of digital equity. Let’s take a look at a few of these elements, as well as some tips for how to deal with them.
The lower a household’s income, the less likely they are to subscribe to a wireline broadband service. While you can’t control your visitors’ internet speeds, you can take steps to ensure that your website loads and performs well on slow connection speeds
Top Page Speed Tips:
Evaluate your website per Google's Core Web Vitals and use a tool to help you simulate Mobile vs Desktop speed, Mobile Speeds (3G, 4G), and connection speeds by location. Also, establish rules for content that impact page speed, such as size and format restrictions for images.
The Mobile Experience
The lower a household’s income, the less likely they are to own a PC or tablet. The mobile experience is therefore not just something that Google cares about, but a big issue for digital equity as a large number of households are not only mobile-first but mobile ONLY.
Top Mobile Experience Tips:
Try browsing your website via a mobile device to see if it provides a good user experience. If it does not, this can negatively impact not just the user experience itself, but also your website’s Google ranking. Also, if you have a website style guide, make sure it includes mobile design, accessibility, content creation and overall optimization.
Web Accessibility refers to the important work done to ensure that all site visitors are accommodated, regardless of ability. Disabilities come in many forms that people can be born with, develop over time, or acquire instantly, and can be temporary in nature or last a lifetime.
Top Web Accessibility Tips:
Audit your site against WCAG 2.1 AA with both automated scans and a human check, then tackle the most common web accessibility issues, such as missing Alt Text, color contrast issues, and missing “Skip To Content”. Prioritize your most visited content, not forgetting PDFs and other documents.
Academic or text heavy content is a barrier for many people, including those with English as a second language. Keep in mind that the higher the reading level required on your website, the less likely the entire community will be to understand and engage with its contents.
Top Reading Level Tips:
Work with tools like the Hemingway App to assess reading levels as you write. Try to imagine if others would be able to read and understand your content readily. It is a good idea to have a non-native english speaker read through your site to check that it is pitched at the right level. You can also try translating your written content using Google translate. If the translation delivered isn’t clear, the chances are that your original text isn’t either.
Language that excludes visitors because it introduces bias or is discriminatory decreases trust and the willingness to engage online, whereas the opposite (inclusive language) can effectively increase trust and the desire for visitors to engage with your website.
Top Inclusive Language Tips:
Ensure internal understanding of inclusivity! Get educated, and build general awareness. Try to prioritize person-first language, and to be aware of using ableist language that may alienate some. It is also a good idea to set up alerts for non-inclusive language being used on your website.
Now that we have looked at some of the things that can be done to improve your organization’s website and promote digital equity, let’s take a quick look at what has been happening in the US at the government level with regards to digital equity.
The Digital Equity Act, and Other Recent Developments
Earlier this year, The National Digital Inclusion Alliance, NDIA put forth a proposal on what is called the Digital Equity Act.
The Act provides $2.75 billion to establish three grant programs that promote digital equity and inclusion. They aim to ensure that all people and communities have the skills, technology, and capacity needed to reap the full benefits of our digital economy. The three programs are:
- State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program: A $60M formula grant program for states, territories and tribal governments to develop digital equity plans.
- State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program: A $1.44 billion formula grant program for states, territories, and tribal governments. It will fund an annual grant program for five years in support of digital equity projects and the implementation of digital equity plans.
- Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program: A $1.25 billion grant program. It will fund annual grant programs for five years to implement digital equity projects.
The act fundamentally aims to bridge the divide between those who have access to reliable and affordable high-speed internet, and those who do not.
“Increasingly, Americans require a broadband internet connection to live, work, and interact. Yet far too many individuals, many of whom are members of historically overlooked and underserved communities, lack the skills, technologies, and support needed to take advantage of the opportunities made available by a reliable broadband connection. Absent help, they are at risk of being left behind. Expanding access to broadband is necessary but is far from sufficient. The Federal Government must work towards ensuring ‘all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy”—a principle called 'digital equity'." - National Digital Inclusion Alliance]
Other notable developments include recent announcements made by the Department of Justice (DOJ), including new guidance on how to address web accessibility that was released in March 2022, and their intent to make adherence to specific web accessibility standards law by 2023 as an amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act Title II.
Today, the term digital equity clearly refers to a great deal more than just access to technology. As cultural trends and online practices have evolved, so too has this term to encompass people’s changing needs and shifting priorities. What is equally clear is that digital equity is something that individual organizations can work towards with or without regulations by being conscious of and practicing digital inclusion. At the end of the day, if the goal of digital equity is ever to be reached, digital inclusion needs to become something that is championed by online entities not because it is required, but rather because it is the right thing to do.
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