The Digital Divide with Older Adults and People who are Disabled.

a picture of several rows of computers in a library.  some patrons are sitting scattered in the rows

image courtesy of Lester Public Library

As an adult child of a woman who has learned to use Facebook in the last year or so, I am very well acquainted with the digital divide between older adults and those who have grown up with computers in school and at home.  There is nothing more frustrating, on both sides, to see a parent post something meant to be a private message as a status, after explaining the difference over and over!   Yet the issue is much more serious than accidental Facebook posts or regular email forwards from parents.   To employ a bit of hyperbole for a moment, the world (or at least most of mine) seems to be run via the internet.   To know that there are still large populations of the United States who are non-users, be it through lack of access or understanding, is a problem.  As an information professional, it is my place to be a part of the solution.  First, however, let me address some important background and statistical information.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) from 1995 to 2000 published a series of reports that first started to detail this growing gap between people who have access to technology and the internet, and those who do not.  The final report stated,

Each year, being digitally connected becomes ever more critical to economic and educational advancement and community participation. Now that a large number of Americans regularly use the Internet to conduct daily activities, people who lack access to these tools are at a growing disadvantage (2000).

The Pew Internet Project picked up where the NTIA survey ended.  In a report released earlier this year, Pew looked into this trend of a digital divide.  While the report indicates the gap is closing, it is still highly significant.

In 2000 12% of adults over the age of 65 accessed the internet, in 2011 that number increased to 41%.  Age is one of the biggest factors in determining if a person has access to computers and the internet.  The other major factors are lack of a high school education and living close to, or below the poverty line.  The Pew Internet Project also reports that of 48% of non-users report that main reason they do not use the internet is not relevant to their lives, or in other words, they have no use for the technology. This is followed (in order or percentage reporting) by the cost of using internet, usability issues, and finally by lack of access and availability.   These statistics also take into account access to different mediums for internet access, such as tablets, computers, and mobile/smart phones.

In regards to disability, the Pew Internet Project reports that:

The 27% of adults living with disability in the U.S. today are significantly less likely than adults without a disability to go online (54% vs. 81%). Furthermore, 2% of adults have a disability or illness that makes it more difficult or impossible for them to use the internet at all.

Furthermore, even after they’ve controlled for demographic issues such as income and education, the number is still disproportionately high.

These numbers are exceptionally important for information professionals to be aware of, in particular the public library sector.  While we cannot put a computer and internet in everyone’s hands, we can provide access through our public computer services.  We provide education by offering both classes to groups of our patrons, but also through short one on one instructional sessions.

Both older adults and people with disabilities are those we can reach out to, and make the library an inclusive place for them.  It is my experience that the local libraries in my area are trying to reach out to the older demographic.  With free computer and internet use, free or low cost beginner classes, and programming to engage older adults.  This trend needs to remain, and it needs to have continued support to remain viable.  Examples for future ideas could include reaching out to senior centers to offer classes on computer usage just for members of those facilities.

However, I see a disturbing lack of support for people who are disabled.   Yes, many libraries have outreach programs.  Yes, most all libraries are ADA accessible.  Yet just because a building is considered accessible through ADA codes, does not mean that it is actually accessible in practice. This is, I hope, largely a budgetary/space issue, and not just apathy.  Although, I do believe apathy or ignorance plays a large role in facilities that remain difficult to access.

Beyond actual technology library facilities, particularly pavement, sidewalks, and doors should always be well maintained.  Cracks in the cement, awkward ramps, and broken automatic doors can make navigating in a wheelchair or with a walker difficult to the point where someone may decide not to enter the facility.

If a library has a computer lab, there should be an effort to have at least one (if not more, depending on size of the library) computer that is equipped with an adjustable desk, screen reading software, and magnifying abilities.  Keyboard, mice, and mouse trackpads that are easy for people to use with limited mobility would also be valuable additions to any computer lab.  It is not enough just to have these items, however.  They should be marketed in library promotional materials and passed around to relevant community sources.

In the end, libraries in the United States are there to support access to information, and we need to do our best to provide access to all members of our communities, not just the members of the communities who are the easiest or largest populations to assist.


National Telecommunications and Information Administration (DOC), W. C., & Bureau of the Census (DOC), W. n. (2000). Falling through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion. A Report on Americans’ Access to Technology Tools.

Zickuhr, K., & Smith, A. (2012, April 13). Digital Differences. In Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved November 12, 2012, from