A team of authors including Courtney Ward Sutton, PhD., Natalie F Williams, PhD., Corey Moore, RhD., and Edward Manyibe, PhD., recently published a comprehensive overview of the available peer-reviewed literature on assistive technology (AT) access and usage barriers among African Americans with disabilities. The authors completed a detailed historical review of the available literature on AT and disability public policy mandates, specifically looking at AT access and usage disparities among African Americans with disabilities as well as AT impacts on employment for African Americans.

The report details the clear benefits that AT and associated assistive products have for individuals with disabilities in the United States, also highlighting the historical inequities between African Americans and Whites, in an attempt to discover a means of overcoming the inequality.

For African Americans, inequities in AT access, usage, and access to technology in general, has further disenfranchised this already marginalized group. The technology gap, also known as the “digital divide,” is an important issue for social justice in our modern society. The term “digital divide” describes the unequal access to computers and the Internet experienced by people of color as has been documented by census information and government and private surveys historically. Almost two decades ago, researchers DiMaggio and Hargittai framed digital inequality along five specific dimensions:

 

  • technical apparatus or equipment
  • digital skill
  • social support
  • purposes for technology use
  • the autonomy of use.

Now, nearly 20 years later, their description of the digital divide has evolved to include inequalities in technological skills and application. For African Americans with disabilities, the divide has grown to include discrepancies in control of technology tools and the context to use those tools.

The digital divide reflects the ways in which long standing social inequalities shape beliefs and expectations about informational and communication technology, and its impacts on individuals of color. Those from historically privileged groups and higher economic backgrounds have enjoyed a much higher level of access to technology and Internet services, oftentimes used to advance their education, employment, choice of housing, and social standings. People of color, specifically African Americans, have long been statistically more likely to have less access to technology, opportunities for employment and education, and those with disabilities have suffered as a result.

AT accessibility is about ensuring access to technology and innovation, making specific accommodations for particular disabilities. Research has shown that for assistive technology products to be accessed and used to the best effect for the individual involved, the technology must be “affordable, reliable, maintainable, and of sufficient design quality so that the assistive product will enable the intended assistance” (Stumbo, Martin, & Hedrick, 2009).

Some low-tech assistive products like canes or eyeglasses are more readily available and accessible, but the article’s authors claim that due to the digital divide, African Americans with disabilities may be at greater risk for exclusion from programs and services that provide access to high-tech AT devices, like motorized wheelchairs, vehicle modifications and smart-home residential technology. Furthermore, over time, generations of disparities have left many African Americans with disabilities on the fringe of a technologically advanced society, separated from those who could offer them support and assistance.

What’s the solution?

One critical element brought forward by the authors is the idea that a means of addressing the disparities brought on by the digital divide is to develop innovative approaches to improving access to lifelong learning and key AT competencies. By focusing on educational efforts and technology developments for providers, organizations and educators, the authors propose to even the playing field and allow easier flow of information and training into historically economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities.

The better informed the community, the more likely the residents can be educated as to the availability of assistive technology and its benefits. Understanding that businesses and government agencies rely heavily on computer-based marketing and management systems, the authors state that African Americans with disabilities who have limited access to the Internet and social media may be far less likely to hear about available AT services, nor to apply for the funding needed for high-tech assistive products.

By empowering AT professionals and providers to better educate their communities, including using systems to certify training pathways in AT and projects aimed at equipping the community with informal learning, the authors propose to help bridge the AT divide for African Americans and other communities of color.

By working together, we all benefit and move towards closing the gap in AT access.

ATECH’s professional development courses offer intensive training in building AT core competencies. Our provider-member community offers training, support and opportunities to explore emerging technologies. To learn more about our member services and upcoming courses, please visit the ATECH Academy.

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