1998 Conference Proceedings

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Stephanie Sinks B.S.
e-mail: ssinks@med.unr.edu 
Julia King, Ph.D.
e-mail: jmk@med.unr.edu 
University of Nevada, Reno
Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology


There is tremendous interest today in making the Internet accessible to all people including those with severe disabilities. There are several ways to evaluate Internet accessibility. For instance, on-line access to information requires that web pages be published with specific formatting guidelines so that the greatest number of people can access the information. For example, if a web page is presented in graphic form only, people with visual impairments may not be able to access the information. A solution to this problem would be to publish the same web page with underlying text that can be interpreted by specially designed text to speech output equipment. Many researchers currently offer guidelines for creating accessible web pages (Burnett, 1997; Comden & Amtmann, 1997; Cunningham & Coombs, 1997; Paciello, n.d.; Vanderheiden, n.d.; W3C, 1997). Another area of investigation focuses on the adaptability of computer equipment and workstations to compensate for impaired modalities so that people with disabilities can access a computer in order to access the Internet. There are numerous technological adaptations (e.g., enlarged keyboards) available because of extensive, creative efforts in this area of investigation (Blackstone, 1996; Cunningham & Coombs, 1997; Wilson, 1996).

These are important areas of investigation; overcoming barriers such as inaccessible web page design and inadequate equipment are crucial to the widely held goal of Internet accessibility for everyone. However, there has been no known research to determine the reasons that adults with disabilities never achieve contact with the Internet. The authors of this study were interested in investigating barriers to accessing the Internet by asking the following research questions: (1) How do people with disabilities, with little experience with the Internet, perceive the Internet; (2) Do the perceptions of people with disabilities change after a brief educational presentation about the Internet; (3) what, if any, barriers were perceived to joining the Internet community after the presentation; and (4) what differences in perceptions, if any, existed between participants with communication impairments, and participants without communication impairments.


Eleven male and four female adults participated in this study. All 15 participants had multiple visual, hearing, physical, motor, learning, or speech and language impairments. Eight of the participants had communication impairments concomitant with other impairments. The participants' ages ranged from 25-60 years with a mean age of 39.3 years. Although 87% of the participants had been employed at some time during their life, only 20% were employed at the time of this study. Most of the participants had graduated from high school or had achieved a General Education Diploma (GED); two participants had not completed high school. Six of the participants had taken college classes, and two were college graduates with bachelor degrees (one in social psychology, and one in fine arts); four of the participants where attending classes at the time of data collection.


This study was conducted using an interview format for data collection. Each participant was asked to take part in one 90-minute audio tape-recorded session. The first portion of each session included a pre-presentation interview, followed by an oral and video presentation explaining the Internet, and finally, a post-presentation interview.

The pre-presentation interview included 26 questions designed to elicit background information and to evaluate each participant's na?ve perspective of the Internet (i.e., costs, benefits, and negative aspects).

The presentation was designed to inform participants of the Internet's possible uses, equipment needed to go on-line, and costs involved in Internet membership. The purpose of the presentation was to educate participants so that they could make informed evaluations about what barriers, if any, prevented them from accessing the Internet. The presentation consisted of two parts, an oral presentation with visual and tactile aids, and a videotaped portion demonstrating actual Internet access. The oral portion described computer components, the Internet, and electronic mail (e-mail). Selected sections of the videotape entitled THE INTERNET GUIDE FOR EVERYONE (Consulting, 1997) were shown. In addition, examples of web pages printed from the Internet were displayed and discussed with the participants.

The post-presentation interview consisted of 6 questions designed to assess whether participant's perceptions had changed as the result of having acquired more information about the Internet during the presentation. The post-presentation interview was also designed to determine what perceived barriers might prevent an individual from accessing the Internet if he or she were interested in doing so.


All of the participants reported having used a computer at least once; 5 participants (33%) owned Internet-ready computers. All participants had heard about the Internet; 4 (27%) had tried to access the Internet, though only one was successful accessing e-mail with assistance. Eleven of the participants (73%) had never tried to access the Internet. Most of the participants reported having heard about the Internet and its uses from friends and family members, or from television.

Participants cited the following potential purposes for using the Internet: communication, information, education, business, employment, entertainment, shopping and meeting people.

When asked how they might specifically benefit by using the Internet, participants cited better access to information and training; better access to information on specific disabilities; better communication via e-mail; not having to travel as much to acquire information and services; increased opportunities to meet people, being able to shop from home, and being able to work from home or start a home business.

Participants reported that security issues (theft and fraud), predatory people, pornography, viruses, wasted time, invasion of privacy, unreliable information, and the expense of equipment were potentially negative aspects of the Internet. Seven participants (47%) said they did not know exactly what a person needs to get on the Internet, and nine (60%) reported they did not know the exact costs of getting on the Internet prior to the presentation.

Overall, the participants demonstrated a basic understanding of the potential benefits and negative aspects of the Internet. Most of the participants reported better understanding of the Internet after the presentation. Fourteen of the 15 participants (93%) were interested in learning more about the Internet. Eleven participants (73%) reported that their views of the Internet had changed; 4 (27%) said the Internet was about what they had expected. Participants whose views had changed offered the following comments:

Participants were asked what, if any reasons would prevent them from accessing the Internet. Responses where placed into four broad barrier categories. Participants offered multiple responses, therefore, responses were not mutually exclusive. The most frequently cited barrier was financial (12/15 or 80%), followed by technical (9/15 or 60%), impairment (8/15 or 53%), and personal (7/15 or 47%).

The most frequently reported barrier to joining the Internet was financial. This result is not surprising considering there was an 80% unemployment rate among the participants. This is an extremely high unemployment rate compared to the Nevada statewide unemployment rate of 3.8 in December 1997 for the general population (Labor, 1997). However, according to a report from the National Council on Disability (1996), the national unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 72% in 1995. The unemployment rate for this study's participant group was consistent with national averages.

Internet Service Provider (ISP) charges of approximately twenty dollars per month represented the most frequently cited financial barrier. Most of the participants were reportedly living on fixed incomes. Many communities offer freenets, ISPs without monthly charges (Mazrui, n.d.); however, there were no known freenets available to people with disabilities in the Reno area at the time of data collection.

An unexpected financial barrier concerned credit card ownership. Two of the participants had recently acquired Internet ready computers with browser software included. When they attempted to subscribe to the ISP linked with the browser, they were each asked to provide a credit card number. Neither participant had a credit card, and consequently, they were denied membership. Most ISP companies will only allow monthly payments via credit cards.

Some impairment barriers cited were closely associated with financial barriers. For instance, motor impairments and visual impairments can be compensated for with the right adaptive equipment; however, special equipment constitutes increased expense. Learning problems were also cited as a barrier to learning how to use the Internet.

Many participants perceived lack of computer training, Internet training and technical support as barriers to successfully accessing the Internet. One participant who had formerly owned a computer had hired a technician to teach him how to use it. The participant, who is visually impaired, thought that the technician was taking advantage of him by "playing on the computer" while pretending to work. The participant became so frustrated with the experience that he gave up trying to learn, and sold his computer. Another participant who had multiple impairments secondary to traumatic brain injury, had acquired a computer as a gift; however, he did not know how to use it, and did not know how to get training. Consequently, the computer sat idle in the corner of his room. He was also concerned about protecting himself against on-line fraud if he were to join the Internet community, and did not know where to get information.

Participants reported personal barriers as well. For instance, one participant who owned an Internet-ready computer and who had the resources to buy additional components, claimed he wanted to get on the Internet. However, he could not find the "motivation" to find a distributor and arrange transportation to purchase a modem. Another participant reported she was "afraid" of the Internet because her fellow church members perceived the Internet as a way for Satan to reach a new audience. Lack of information or misinformation was also cited. For example, one participant who was quadriplegic reported that he had been misinformed, and thought that the only way to access the Internet was to type all commands. He believed this would exclude him from membership.

There were no distinctive differences in the responses of adults with and without communication impairments.


Although the Internet could be considered the most powerful communication tool of our time, the results of this study found that communication impairments do not significantly impact access any more than other impairments do. However, as the Internet becomes a more powerful communication medium, anyone without access may essentially be at a communication disadvantage.

The small number of participants in this study allowed us to gain a highly individualized profile for each person. Participants were aware of what they are being excluded from, and they appeared to understand how Internet access could benefit them personally as well as other people with disabilities. Perceived barriers to Internet access were expected (e.g., cost of computer equipment), and not so expected (e.g., discrimination based on credit card ownership). Three of the participants have since overcome their barriers, with a great deal of support, and have joined the Internet community.

A larger study of this kind is needed to determine how people with disabilities are currently being excluded from Internet membership, and why. A longitudinal study following people with disabilities through the process of joining the Internet community would be interesting and might provide valuable information about other potential barriers and benefits.


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