Disability and the Digital Divide

by | Oct 12, 2023 | Ability News, Accessibility, Canberra

As journalists, it’s our job to communicate. Today, the way we do that is online. But not everybody has equal access to online information.

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Whilst many Australians living in connected regions can read the news on their smartphone, tablet or desktop, not all Australians have that privilege.

And it’s all because of a terrible phenomenon known as the “Digital Divide”. 

What makes this particularly relevant today is the potential impact of Saturday’s referendum vote in regard to the digital inclusion/exclusion of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders.

That’s why we’re sharing this AbilityEXPLAINER – it’s a brief, focussed look at a key issue for People with Disability. 

We’ve asked Makafalani Kama (‘Maka’) who is working closely with OZeWAI.org to help us understand what this is all about and what this means for First Nations communities and accessibility…

So what is the Digital Divide?

Maka explains that according to the 2023 Australian Digital Inclusion Index one in four Australians – a total of 6 million people – are digitally excluded. They either lack access to digital services, can’t afford the gear, or don’t know how to use it. 

The Good Things Foundation says those who are digitally excluded are often people with low levels of income, education and employment, those living in regional areas (including many from indigenous communities), people aged over 65 and, critically for us, people with a disability. 

“1 in 4 people in Australia are still digitally excluded (ADII, 2023). People with low levels of income, education and employment, those living in some regional areas, people aged over 65 and people with a disability are at particular risk of being left behind.”

Good Things Foundation

Why is this an issue now? 

According to Maka, most of those working in the tech industry are aware of what a huge issue it is for First Nations communities and including those with people who identify as having a disability. 

Ability News has taken a firm editorial decision not to advocate either a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote for this weekend’s referendum. We believe there are many issues that voters need to carefully weigh-up as they decide how they’ll cast their ballots. 

We do, nonetheless, believe in making sure people are informed. Because digital issues are so crucial to our future, and because we think this is a big issue for First Nations communities, we’re providing this short guide to a few perspectives of the issues involved in the ‘Voice’ referendum. 

How might this affect input into policy development? 

Maka explains that a ‘Yes’ vote would establish a dedicated representative body for Indigenous Australians and that this would aim to provide digitally excluded Indigenous Australians with an organisation to articulate their unique challenges to policy makers. Maka explains “This creates inclusion, facilitating the co-design of relevant policy decisions related to digital infrastructure, access, and services could target areas with high rates of digital exclusion, ensuring that they receive the necessary resources and support to bridge the digital divide.”

However, ‘No’ advocates might point out that there’s no guarantee that this new body would represent particular groups. They might say that a ‘Yes’ vote could even limit representation, resulting in a lack of dedicated advocacy for these digitally excluded Indigenous communities, even resulting in a slowing-down of progress in addressing their unique challenges particularly in combating the Digital Divide. 

Verdict: The government has stated that the form of representation will depend upon the ongoing parliamentary process. If a “yes” vote were to be successful, it would be this process that would determine the success or failure of effective advocacy.

Cultural Preservation and Empowerment

‘Yes’ proponents suggest that a Voice would empower Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities in two ways; it would create an organisation to advise government agencies about how best to make impactful changes for First Nations through co-design, it offers a more quantifiable feeling of recognition by First Nations communities. With improved access to digital tools and platforms, Maka explains that Indigenous communities could more effectively “share their stories, traditions, and knowledge with a wider audience, fostering a sense of cultural pride and empowerment.”

However, a ‘No’ vote could potentially hinder these efforts, as there may be fewer resources available to support the digital initiatives that facilitate cultural preservation and empowerment. There is also a belief shared amongst some ‘No’ activists that specific cultural groups and elders may be preferred to others, resulting in further exclusion and division.  

Verdict: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples represent one of the oldest cultures on the planet. A “Yes” vote appears more likely to help – rather than hinder – the preservation of First Nations culture. 

Economic Opportunities

According to Maka, a ‘Yes’ vote could provide greater access to economic opportunities if it results in improved digital services and tools. This would lead to improved socio-economic outcomes including education, employment, and entrepreneurship through increased use of technology. In particular, this would help drive efforts towards bridging gaps created by the digital divide by encouraging and increasing the level of indigenous self-determination.

However, a ‘No’ vote may result in the continued digital exclusion of Indigenous Australians from those opportunities if it prevents government focussing on technology as an enabler for remote communities. 

Verdict: The real question is what happens after the vote and if a “yes” vote leads to the delivery of the necessary infrastructure to regional areas, this would be a good thing.

Health and Well-being Benefits

A ‘Yes’ vote for the Voice would facilitate much needed telehealth services, health information access, and other digital health resources. Maka explains that “Digital health services can be particularly important, especially in remote areas where access to physical healthcare facilities may be limited.”

A ‘No’ vote may slow down efforts to improve access to digital health resources, potentially affecting the health and well-being of digitally excluded communities, particularly Indigenous communities and often those suffering with disabilities. 

Verdict:  The pace at which such digital health technologies are adopted will depend on the degree that First Nations communities (and particularly marginalised and disabled members) are included as part of a Codesign process – otherwise it may all be in vain.

Digital Inclusion

Maka highlights that “by providing dedicated representation and advocacy, as well as sparking a range of initiatives and policies that directly address the challenges faced by digitally excluded Australians, a ‘Yes’ vote could significantly improve digital inclusion and unlock many of the currently latent digital service benefits for these communities. However, a ‘No’ vote is likely to deliver slower progress, resulting in limited advocacy, fewer tailored programs, and slower infrastructure development.”

‘No’ advocates would likely say that there is no evidence that progress will be slower simply because there is no single body to advocate for indigenous people. They would emphasise that the government will continue working at its own pace, regardless of the result of the referendum. 

Verdict: the pace of change towards digital inclusion would depend heavily upon the ability of the government to properly unlock those latent digital benefits for First Nations communities and those in marginalised locations. Australians with disabilities are also relying upon the government to make this work.

Ultimately, Ability News believes in the vital importance of digital technology in achieving better results for First Nations communities, marginalised communities, and particularly those with disabilities. Whether Australia votes “Yes” or “No”, we will continue to find ways to bridge the gap created by the Digital Divide.