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Digital inclusion: Two clicks forward and one back

Despite a considerable body of evidence on how, why and with what impact children are engaging in the digital environment, there remains a dearth of information about the experiences of children with disabilities. In order to rectify that gap, the Council of Europe commissioned a study involving children in 6 countries (Belgium, Germany, Republic of Moldova, Portugal, Turkey, United Kingdom) to explore their views on how their rights were realized in relation to: access to the digital environment; impact on education, health, play and recreation; safety and protection and opportunities for increasing involvement in decision-making.

The research employed a child-rights based, participatory approach, supported by four advisory groups of children with, respectively, intellectual, physical, hearing and visual impairments. The data was gathered through focus group discussions in each country, involving 79 children in the partner countries and 18 in the advisory groups (97 in total).

The findings indicate that although, in many ways, their digital and online lives are very similar to those of children without disabilities, there are a number of distinct and important differences with implications for policy makers and service providers at all levels.

Diversity

Right to inclusion: The challenges and barriers faced by children with disabilities vary significantly according to the type and nature of the impairment. It does them a disservice to lump them together as an undifferentiated group. The requirements of children who use sign language or are blind, for example, are very different from those who lip-read or who have limited vision.

Digital dividends

Right to education, play, association: The digital environment can be an enabler that brings significant ‘added value’ to children with disabilities in terms of the realization of their rights. It opens up a range of possibilities for some children with disabilities and, when it works well, is considered to operate as an ‘equalizer’. Technological developments have enabled many children with disabilities to find information, communicate, socialize, learn and play in ways that are not possible to the same extent in their non-digital lives.

Disadvantage

Right to non-discrimination: Children with disabilities are disproportionately disadvantaged in terms of their ability to access and use the benefits of digital technology. Multiple barriers impede their access. Technological barriers deny many children with disabilities access to and use of many devices, websites and applications which are readily available to other children. Financial barriers can serve to limit access to adaptations and equipment which many children with disabilities need both at home and at school. The dominance of English online acts as a further barrier for children with disabilities from non-English speaking countries, who are already having to overcome the technical challenges of programmes and equipment inadequately adapted for their impairments.

Discontinuity and disruption

Right to equal access: While it is commonly asserted that children are able to move seamlessly between the digital and non-digital environments, this is not the experience of many children with disabilities, who more frequently face discontinuity and disruption in their digital access. Such disruption might be between home and school, where phones are banned, computers lack the necessary accessibility features, or teachers lack the necessary expertise and knowledge to support them in use of appropriate technology. It can also arise in relation to healthcare or wider social settings where the lack of available or appropriate technology disrupts their access to services.

Disclosing disability

Right to privacy: The participating children were unanimous in saying that they did not disclose their disability online. The reasons were varied, but included a fear that so doing would lead to discrimination or rejection, as well as the view that it was a personal issue and no-one else’s business. Some children highlighted that use of adaptive technology had the effect of drawing attention to them, identifying them as having a disability and marking them out as different from their peers. For these children, the technology is a somewhat unwelcome signifier of their disability.

Dealing with danger

Right to protection from violence and exploitation: The majority of children with disabilities across the study had been alerted to potential online risks. Many considered that they were no more vulnerable online, and faced and experienced the same risks as their peers without a disability. Children with intellectual impairments were an exception, being more likely to be more protected by parents and less likely to be online due to the perception of potential dangers. Children also highlighted that not being online did not mean that they were sufficiently protected from risks related to the digital environment, with visually impaired children, for example, describing being unaware of their photos being uploaded by others without their permission.

Decision-making

Right to respect for evolving capacity, to be listened to and taken seriously: The findings suggest that children with disabilities may experience a triple barrier in the enjoyment of their rights: first, the fact that they are children poses a barrier to being heard and taken seriously; secondly, their disability often leads to negative assumptions about their capacities and competence in online decision-making; and finally, parents and other adults are often more protective of children with disabilities than other children. However, overall, the children indicated greater acceptance of parental controls than is found in other research with children, where children expressed frustration with parents’ over-protectiveness and lack of understanding of children’s online realities.

These findings indicate that children with disabilities can both benefit and be disadvantaged disproportionately in the digital environment compared to children who do not have disabilities. This underscores the need for far greater attention to be paid by governments, the digital industry, schools and healthcare services to the rights of children with disabilities. They also point to the importance of engagement with children with a diversity of disabilities to ensure that their direct experience is reflected in targeted laws and policies, as well as accessible services and digital design.

Source: Council of Europe

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