Disability, human rights, and social justice: The ongoing struggle for online accessibility and equality
First Monday

Disability, human rights, and social justice: The ongoing struggle for online accessibility and equality by Paul T. Jaeger

This paper argues for a reconsideration of the arguments made for online equality for persons with disabilities, using the context of the United States as a primary lens through which to examine the issues. By linking the existing legal protections and professional standards for accessible design to structures and institutions of human rights and social justice from international to local levels, advocates for an accessible online environment will have new opportunities to establish online equality for persons with disabilities within the broader continuum of human rights and social justice. Framing and discussing accessibility as a human issue as much as a legal and technical issue may bring significant changes to the current relationships between disability and the Internet.


The disability and the Internet story (so far)
The impacts of inaccessibility
Human rights, social justice, information, and accessibility
Accessibility as equality



The disability and the Internet story (so far)

When I first read the call for articles for this special issue of First Monday, I was delighted to find that my 2012 book Disability and the Internet: Confronting a digital divide was credited both as a direct inspiration for the special issue and as helping to reinvigorate discourse about disability and technology. I wrote that book trying to bring together all of the challenges and opportunities for people with disabilities that are presented by the Internet in an easy-to-understand and cross-disciplinary manner. Jump-starting discourse — particularly between scholars in different fields — was a key reason for writing the book, as the need for a clear message about online inclusion and coordinated research goals to foster such inclusion has never been more pressing than it is now.

The Internet grows more central to participation in society seemingly on a daily basis. In technologically advanced nations, if you want to search for a job, much less successfully keep a job you have, using the Internet is now required. Similarly, if you are a student at any level in many places, the Internet is a necessity to apply, enroll, register for classes, turn in assignments, find course materials, and get grades. Most interactions with government — from filing taxes to signing petitions to enrolling children in public schools — have moved online in a large number of countries. Online access and digital literacy are becoming essential to being part of a technologically advanced society. Yet, for many groups, even in the most technologically advanced nations, the Internet has been built with many inherent barriers that limit the ability to participate, including issues of cost, language, literacy, access, accessibility, and infrastructure (Thompson, et al., 2014).

People with disabilities comprise a very large part of the human population. Worldwide, the number is estimated to be about one billion people, while in the United States, about 56.7 million people — 19 percent of the population has a disability (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). Statistically, no group is more disadvantaged online than people with disabilities, who have the lowest levels of Internet usage of any group in the United States, and in most other nations as well (Jaeger, 2012). In 2011, 54 percent of adults in the U.S. with disabilities used the Internet, while 81 percent of other adults did (Fox, 2011a, 2011b). People with disabilities who do regularly use the Internet also lag behind in quality of access, with 41 percent of adults with disabilities having broadband access at home, while 69 percent of the rest of the population does. People with disabilities can also be limited in their access to and use of the Internet by a wide range of factors including accessibility problems with Internet service providers (ISPs), the ability to afford the hardware, and Web browsers that are not compatible with vital assistive technologies (Jaeger, 2012). For persons with disabilities, the barriers they face are not necessarily as fixable by intermediaries as the barriers faced other groups, since these barriers to access are commonly found in the design of computing technologies, the infrastructure to reach content, and the content itself (Jaeger, 2013; Lazar and Jaeger, 2011; Wentz and Lazar, 2011).

Technologies that are inherently designed to be inclusive of all users regardless of ability — including the large portion of the population with a disability — are known as “accessible technologies.” To be accessible, a technology must be usable in an equal manner by all users without relying on specific senses or abilities. Additionally, the technology must be compatible with the assistive technologies that users may rely on: narrators, scanners, speech recognition, alternate input, enlargement, voice-activated technologies, refreshable Braille, and many other devices that persons with disabilities may employ (Draffon, 2009; Jaeger, 2009; Lazar, 2006; Lazar and Greenridge, 2006; Lazar and Jaeger, 2011).

Online inaccessibility can affect most people with disabilities, depending on the types of inaccessibility encountered. To be inclusive of persons with visual impairments, a Web site must be designed so that all of the text, buttons, and links can be read by a screen reading program like JAWS or Window-Eyes; that all graphics have alt tags — text describing the image; that it has sufficient contrast between text and background; that it works with screen magnifiers, screen enlargement software, and Braille readers; that it can be navigated by keyboard rather than mouse; that text size and color contrast can be adjusted; and that the features with other types of assistive technologies that may be used for text size and color contrast.

For users with hearing impairments, all audio content on the Web site must have closed captioning or a textual equivalent. For users with seizure disorders, Web sites must avoid flashing items. Users with mobility impairments must be able to navigate without a mouse through voice and other alternate input devices. For users with cognitive disabilities, the navigation of the site and instructions should be clear, while the layout must be uncluttered and text effectively tied to images. In all of these cases, the content and services online also need to be compatible with the range of assistive technologies listed above. For all of these populations, professional and academic resources have been created that provide guides for promoting accessibility online. As one example of many options, Friedman and Bryen (2007) offer a clear, research-based set of design recommendations for accessibility for persons with cognitive disabilities.

Information technologies can be accessible from the outset if designed to include all users and if the accessibility solutions are designed to carry through subsequent generations of an information technology (Hackett, et al., 2004; Kennard and Lyle, 2001; Lazar and Greenidge, 2006; Stephanidis and Emiliani, 1999; Vanderheiden, 2003). However, for most information technologies, accessibility is not part of the design process and accessibility testing infrequently occurs in the development and implementation of most information technologies (Jaeger, 2006; Kanayama, 2003; Keates and Clarkson, 2003; Theofanos and Redish, 2003; Tusler, 2005). The design of technologies — when not including accessibility as a core component — actually disables rather than enables, creating further social barriers for persons with disabilities (Goggin and Newell, 2003; Moser, 2006).



The impacts of inaccessibility

If persons with disabilities are to achieve true equality of access and usage in the online environment, the perceptions of many groups must change. Right now, there are legal structures and professional guidelines to make information technologies and online content accessible from the beginning. Many nations have laws that identify specific accessibility requirements — the United States established guidelines in 1998 — and guidelines from professional organizations — such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 — are internationally available and have been adopted as law in many nations. Yet, these guidelines are often ignored. Government agencies, corporations, educational institutions, and non-profits frequently ignore accessibility for persons with disabilities. Achieving equality online rests not only on better enforcement of the existing legal structures, but on finding the language to connect concerns of online equality to groups beyond people with disabilities and to change perceptions about the importance of accessibility.

This lack of consistent attention to accessibility over the past two decades has been made abundantly clear by the participation of people with disabilities in different contexts that are Internet-enabled or Internet-dependent. Consider employment in the United States:

  • Only 41 percent of working age (21–64) people with a disability are employed, but 79 percent of others are;
  • The median monthly income for people with disabilities of working age is $1,961, while the median monthly income for others of working age is $2,724; and,
  • While 3.8 percent of the general U.S. population lives in persistent poverty, 4.9 percent of people with non-severe disabilities and 10.8 percent of people with severe disabilities do (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012).

Similar differences exist in terms of education and many forms of civic participation for people with disabilities, with gaps in Internet accessibility exacerbating existing problems or creating new ones in many contexts. For example, for most people with disabilities, higher education “is still just a dream” (Mates, 2010).

The story of disability and the Internet (the issues, not the book) is one that is now decades old, yet it feels like we have not really made all that much progress since the discussion began in the mid-1990s. The technologies around us change, but the problems do not. In recent years, many assistive technologies have become more affordable, some effective assistive software products have become freely available, and more devices come with built-in accessibility features. However, much of the infrastructure and content online, and even many of the services needed to get online, still are not born accessible.

These continuing gaps are all the more problematic for the bevy of national and international laws, regulations, and professional standards that have been created to try to increase online access and participation for people with disabilities since the mid-1990s. The most widely used benchmarks for online accessibility — the Section 508 standards from the government of the United States and the W3C’s WCAG — are both nearing their twentieth anniversaries. Many other laws and standards have followed, as have lawsuits and public pressure campaigns.

Some nations have developed elaborate sets of laws to promote accessibility. In the United States, for example, major federal laws promoting accessibility include the Rehabilitation Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Telecommunications Act, and Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010, among others. Yet, the laws are often lightly enforced and are often ignored (Jaeger, 2012, 2013). This has led to scholars proposing new legal schemes or new ways of enforcing the existing laws (e.g., Areheart, 2008; Areheart and Stein, 2015; Jaeger, 2013; Stein, et al., 2014), but these have not led to widespread calls for change to the current legal structures.

In the United States, Section 508 is in the process of being updated, with the standards evolving to match those of the WCAG 2.0. The WCAG 2.0 standards have also been adopted in many other nations. In some countries compliance with the WCAG standards is the law, such as Ireland and Italy, while in other nations, such as Sweden, the government officially encourages adhering to the WCAG standards. The embrace of the WCAG 2.0 under national laws presents genuine progress, as they are much clearer than many standards that individual nations have developed, and they will only be as effective as they are adopted and used. In nations that have employed the WCAG standards for years, studies of Internet accessibility have not demonstrated overall significant improvements in accessibility, based on lack of adherence to or lack of understanding of implementation of the standards (Jaeger, 2012, 2013).

As such, stronger laws and clearer guidelines do not mean that greater accessibility will result if the laws are not widely enforced and the guidelines are not widely implemented. Based on what has occurred over the past two decade, the laws that have been enacted, international standards for accessibility that have been created, lawsuits that have been filed, and research that has been done really haven’t improved all that much in terms of the actual accessibility of the Internet as an environment. Studies of the accessibility of commercial, government, educational, and non-profit Web sites over the past two decades show little progress in online accessibility (Jaeger, 2012; Lazar and Jaeger, 2011; Olalere and Lazar, 2011; Yu and Parmanto, 2011). Having laws and standards has proven resoundingly insufficient to promote online equality for people with disabilities. In the United States, using the WCAG 2.0 standards will have an extremely limited impact on accessibility, as the law will likely still allow exemptions to compliance under “undue burden” clauses. These clauses allow companies, government agencies, educational institutions, and other organizations covered by the laws to not comply with them because the organizations deems accessibility too expensive or inconvenient; not surprisingly, these clauses are widely-used ways to avoid accessibility compliance in the U.S. (Areheart and Stein, 2015; Jaeger, 2013; Stein, et al., 2014; Wentz and Lazar, 2011). As such, the approaches we have taken must be rethought, particularly in terms of the ways in which we argue for equality online; law, economics, professional standards, and research haven’t created a persuasive enough case.

To really change the situation of disability and the Internet, we need to find new approaches to the arguments for accessibility. One clear option is to put more emphasis on human-focused arguments for accessibility. Legal and technical standards are too distant and inhuman to capture the very profound personal impacts of inaccessibility on people with disabilities. In discourse about disability and accessibility, mentions are sometimes made to it being an issue of human rights and/or an issue of social justice, though these arguments have not been explored or articulated in a great level of detail. What would happen if we were to make concerns of human rights — the social structures created to promote equality — and social justice — the social mechanisms by which such equality is fostered and implemented — the central aspect of our arguments for an accessible online environment? Expressly describing and advocating for accessibility as an issue of human rights and social justice may offer more effective options to bringing attention to online equality than the methods that have been relied upon to this point.



Human rights, social justice, information, and accessibility

The concept of human rights is the belief that all individuals deserve certain equal rights as members of society, while the implementation of human rights is tied to specific legal and policy mechanisms that promote equality. For human rights to be effectively implemented, they depend on systems of social justice, the social and societal structures that foster equality based on the laws and policies. The language of human rights and social justice is employed to express the need for fairness and equality and respect (Sensoy and DiAngelo, 2012). The achievement of equality, however, is not just a means of finding a way to accomplish equal distribution of resources or opportunities, as different needs and social contexts may require greater interventions for certain groups to achieve equality (Cramme and Diamond, 2009, Nieto, 2010). Together, these structures form the basis of the protection and fostering of equity in society. Increasingly, a central aspect of equality is information.

Information issues relate to human rights and social justice in many ways: the relationship of information to rights and justice; social, cultural, economic, legal, and political forces shaping information and rights; the impacts of rights on information professions, practices, standards, and cultural institutions; and information access and use by disadvantaged populations (Jaeger, et al., 2015). As information and related technologies have become increasingly essential to education, employment, social interaction, and civic participation, greater focus has been placed on the idea that information can be seen as a necessary human right and a core part of social justice. Arguments have been made that information access, information literacy, intellectual freedom, freedom of expression, and other information behaviors fall under the category of rights and justice in the age of the Internet (e.g., Duffy, 2001; Hoffman, 2001; Jaeger, et al., 2013; Jaeger, et al., 2012; Jaeger, et al., 2015; McCook and Phenix, 2006; Phenix and McCook, 2005; Stinnett, 2009; Suárez, 2007). At the tail end of the last millennium, Kofi Annan (1999), the Seventh Secretary General of the United Nations, stated: “People lack many things: jobs, shelter, food, health care, and drinkable water. Today, being cut off from basic telecommunications services is a hardship almost as acute as these other deprivations, and may indeed reduce the chances of finding remedies to them”. Fifteen years later, this observation still holds true.

In the intervening years, the ability to access, use, and understand information and communication technologies has become far more important to education, employment, social inclusion, civic engagement, and much else that could have been imagined in 1999. Now, guarantees of human rights and social justice are dependent on information, and the ability to use information is its own issue of rights and justice. A leading scholar of human rights recently identified one of the most significant challenges to human rights as: “equal access to information and communication” [1]. Another scholar has labeled information as “the linchpin right” that holds the others together, particularly in online contexts (Mathiesen, 2012, 2013, 2014).

To see how information is a significant and pressing issue in this area, taking a look at the United Nations International Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is instructive. Information technologies were still fairly new when the United Nations issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since its passage, however, the idea of human rights has been evolving and adapting to social, cultural, and technological change. Though the computer, the Internet, and mobile devices were developed long after the UDHR was originally drafted, many of the principles articulated in the UDHR related directly to information, communication, and technology; many more rely on information, communication, and technology to support the principles. Most items directly stated as rights are now either entirely dependent on or enabled by information access and digital literacy, including such major activities as education, employment, and civic participation (Jaeger, et al., 2015). As examples, freedom of speech, press, assembly, and expression are far more practicable when involving a literate populace with access to information technologies. The human rights to education and development are possible without access to and use of information technologies, but they are much more effective with the technologies.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration most explicitly deals with issues of information, enshrining rights to “freedom of opinion and express” and to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media,” as well as the freedom from “interference” in seeking and exchanging information and ideas. Based on this Article and many other parts of the UDHR, the ability to access and use the Internet for purposes of education and expression has been identified as a human right in many quarters. Not long after use of the World Wide Web became commonplace, scholars of law, information, technology, and education began making arguments for universal Internet access being a necessary part of human rights (e.g., Brophy and Halpin, 1999; Lievrouw and Farb, 2003; Mart, 2003; McIver, et al., 2003; Willingham, 2008).

Information and the Internet can now be seen as being central to human rights — the ability to obtain, communicate, and disseminate information is necessary for many human rights to be possible (Halpin, et al., 2000). As Internet-enabled technologies have become more mobile and omnipresent — and vital to education, employment, civic engagement, communication, and entertainment — these arguments have matured into assertions that the abilities both to successfully access and to successfully use the Internet are human rights (e.g., Jaeger, 2013; Jaeger, et al., 2015; Koepfler, et al., 2014; Lyons, 2011; Sturges and Gastinger, 2010; Thompson, et al., 2014). These rights are significant for both technologically advanced nations and those that are still developing the infrastructure for widespread Internet access. In technologically advanced nations, the issue is making the existing Internet infrastructure more inclusive, including equally accessible to users with disabilities. In nations still developing their Internet infrastructure and working to make Internet access widely available, the issue is building an infrastructure that is inclusive from the outset, including being equally accessible to users with disabilities.

The American Library Association (ALA), International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and other information professional and governmental organizations have adopted Article 19 and the principles of information access as a human right into their bylaws and policies. The Internet Society, an organization that bills itself as “the world’s trusted independent source of leadership for Internet policy, technology standards, and future development,” declared the ability to use the Internet to be a human right in 2011. Also in 2011, a U.N. report explicitly discussed Internet access as being central to supporting Article 19 of the UDHR and enabling many other aspects of the UDHR (Human Rights Council, 2011). The IFLA-led Lyon Declaration on Access to Information and Development (2014) called upon the U.N. to make information literacy and digital inclusion central to their human rights and development agendas, building upon the assertions made in the 2006 Alexandria Proclamation for the U.N. and individual nations to make information literacy a central part of their goals (UNESCO, et al., 2006).

In the past 15 years, arguments have been made for the central role of educational and cultural heritage institutions — including public libraries, public schools, academic libraries, archives, and museums — in ensuring human rights related to the Internet in an age so dependent on information and technology (e.g., Duffy, 2001; Hoffman, 2001; Jaeger, et al., 2015; McCook and Phenix, 2006; Phenix and McCook, 2005; Stinnett, 2009; Suárez, 2007; Thompson, et al., 2014). The assertion that Internet access is a human right by many different information professional groups, non-profits, and international agencies presents a clear opportunity to place online accessibility for people with disabilities as an issue of human rights and social justice.



Accessibility as equality

The discourse about disability and the Internet in 2015 is alarmingly close to the discourse about disability and the Internet in 2012 or 2006 or 1999. The technologies have changed in these years and the possibilities of the technologies are much greater, but we are still worried about the same issues of access and inclusion online. If we are to promote substantial changes in online accessibility, we must consider how we are arguing for inclusion and the avenues by which we are pursuing such arguments.

Advocacy for accessibility framed as an issue of equality, of human rights and social justice, may offer a better way to promote tangible changes in attitudes toward and implementations of online accessibility. The current levels of limited equality for people with disabilities online is not due to a lack laws or regulations promoting accessibility; the issue lies with governments, corporations, schools, and other institutions not taking the guidelines seriously. An articulation of these barriers to access in the human terms — the impacts on individuals of the lack of equality — may produce more interest in solving the problems than have been achieved thus far.

The professional organizations and non-governmental organizations noted above that have declared Internet access and usage to be affirmative human rights already have established much of the groundwork for moving the discourse about accessibility in the direction of human rights and social justice. The basic principles of this kind of argument would be:

  1. Access to the Internet is an affirmative human right, as established in the UDHR directly in Article 19 and indirectly in the need for Internet access to achieve many of the other rights listed.
  2. As the Internet is now essential for education, employment, civic engagement, communication, and entertainment, those rights extend not only to access, but the ability to use the Internet.
  3. The laws that mandate online accessibility — while currently not as widely followed as would be ideal — do establish the legal structures of social justice in terms of the Internet.
  4. In combination, the UDHR establishes Internet access as a human right and the specific laws of nations, such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the United States, establish legal mechanisms to enforce Internet access as an issue of social justice.
  5. Institutions of social justice, such as public schools and public libraries at the local level and the W3C at the international level, exist to ensure the necessary digital literacy to use the Internet and the necessary guidelines to design an inclusive online environment.

Upon this framework established in other areas of discourse, we need to begin positioning issues of disability and the Internet within the language and conceptions of human rights and social justice. There are even new allies in the struggle for online equality that might come from a pronounced human rights focus, such as the information professionals and educators already working in other areas of human rights and social justice.

In a 2013 article, I argued for a new legal structure of enforcing the existing accessibility laws of the United States, which I labeled “Internet justice” (Jaeger, 2013). This term was inspired by the campaign for the implementation of closed captioning, in which the term “media justice” was employed by people with hearing impairments to convey the importance of equal access to the content of television programs for all (Downey, 2008, 2010). The range of laws and regulations created by the United States government for promoting online access for persons with disabilities are more robust and comprehensive than those of any other nation (Jaeger, 2004; Simpson, 2009), yet they are not sufficiently enforced to create equality online. The idea behind Internet Justice was to advocate for the equality online by demanding the enforcement of existing legal protections, including the establishment of better organizations within government to ensure those protections as “one of the most important areas of equality for persons with disabilities” [2].

For Internet justice to be realized, however, the changes will need to go far beyond just stronger and better enforced legal protections. It must weave the legal frameworks, the professional standards, and international protections of rights into an interconnected body of reasons that online equality for persons with disabilities be viewed as issues of human rights and social justice. This approach will help to ultimately position online equality for persons with disabilities as not only an issue of rights and justice, but also part of the broader continuum of the international concepts of rights and justice. Articulating accessibility as an inexorable part of digital inclusion — and digital inclusion as an inexorable part of human rights and social justice under existing international, national, and professional laws and standards — offers new opportunities to make progress in advocating for and achieving online equality.

If we want the discussions about disability and the Internet to be substantially different — and hopefully much more positive — when someone decides to put together a special issue of a journal focused on “Disability and the Internet 2020,” we need to bring changes to the ways in which we articulate and advocate for online equality for persons with disabilities. A key part of these changes will be positioning accessibility within the broader continuum of human rights and social justice considerations. Framing and discussing accessibility as a human issue as much as a legal and technical issue has the potential to bring significant changes to the current relationships between disability and the Internet. End of article


About the author

Paul T. Jaeger, Ph.D., J.D., is Professor, Diversity Officer, and Director of the Master of Library Science (MLS) program of the College of Information Studies and Co-Director of the Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland.
E-mail: pjaeger [at] umd [dot] edu



1. Woodiwiss, 2005, p. 121.

2. Jaeger, 2013, p. 40.



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Editorial history

Received 21 August 2015; accepted 22 August 2015.

Copyright © 2015, First Monday.
Copyright © 2015, Paul T. Jaeger. All Rights Reserved.

Disability, human rights, and social justice: The ongoing struggle for online accessibility and equality
by Paul T. Jaeger.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 9 - 7 September 2015
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i9.6164

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