The past year has seen an increase in streaming and a surge in e-commerce. Behind those headlines, however, the reality is very different for many people, says Richard Neish.

At face value 2020 was an equaliser. The equaliser perhaps. We adapted to lockdowns, social restrictions and home-schooling unified by a common foe and a shared disposition. ‘We’re all in this together.’

The year’s heightened sense of equality gave us a juxtaposition against which the inequality of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, inclusion, diversity and most recently safety for women, stood clearer and sharper. Problems in need of resolutions; movements gathering momentum. ‘We’re all in this together’.

Except we weren’t. When the world turned digital there was a barrier to entry. Cost and accessibility closed doors and deepened global data poverty. Those with the means or ability to enter breezed by; the others stood still.

Online access is not a given

Just how impoverished even the UK and US are when it comes to data access is highlighted in research Kin + Carta carried out in both countries early this year. The findings, analysed for our Change Report 2021, make for uncomfortable reading. Half (49%) of people in both countries have either struggled, or personally know someone who has struggled, to access one or more online services over the past year.

Our survey also found that when multiple family members have been working and studying under the same roof, four in ten (43%) of households don’t own enough connected devices for parents and children to work simultaneously. Think about that; working to put food on the table, or providing for your children’s education should never be a binary choice.

What we’re seeing is data impoverishment. The most vulnerable segments of society are being priced out of access to services that have become essential during the pandemic.

We’re not talking about superfluous services here – this isn’t inconvenience, this is incapacitation. The digital resources people struggle to access include education, grocery delivery, healthcare, job postings, and official information relating to the pandemic.

The message from consumers is clear: research from Purple shows three in four (75%) of those with disabilities, or their family members, have stepped away from a UK business due to poor accessibility.

Some 74% say it’s important that websites and apps should be accessible to people with different needs within their households. Let’s give that context: one out of five consumers is permanently impaired (neurodivergent users, visually impaired users, those with mobility impairments), and 100% of us have temporary impairment (carrying heavy shopping, temporary injuries, lighting conditions).

So, what’s to be done? A good starting point is understanding the barriers to real accessibility and inclusion.

Compliance and planned obsolescence are issues

Of the one million homepages analysed in WebAIM’s 2020 report, 98.1% contravened the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, meaning that some audiences faced immediate exclusion.

The spending power of disabled households, known as the Purple Pound, is worth £274bn to a recovering economy, with 20% of the UK population having a disability. And yet it’s all too easy for businesses to buy into a culture of just meeting compliance, of simply hitting the bare minimum for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in the belief they’re offering inclusive tech, all the while alienating the very people they’re supposed to aid.

The upgrade cycle and planned obsolescence strategies adopted by many prominent tech firms creates means-based exclusion. Once the new model of a device, platform or operating system is rolled out, the older is wound down and its functionality is limited.

This means that consumers using older devices won’t necessarily be able to access all the information and services they need, particularly when they’re hosted through brands’ proprietary apps. It’s a harsh approach that affects those most vulnerable in society – you only have to look at job listings or the gig economy to see how devastating this can be. Companies that require a certain calibre of smartphone to host their apps, or require a recent Windows operating system to complete an application, are effectively pricing out potential workers.

The additional pressures placed on domestic technology provision and broadband services has also led to a similar division between the haves, and have-nots. Even those who have enough connected devices may not be able to afford the broadband needed to support their use.

Businesses have a choice to make

While there’s no quick fix to the upgrade cycle and affordability of broadband, these are issues that deserve wider, socio-political consideration. The obvious place where we can make effective and immediate change is the creation of inclusive digital platforms. As the organisations that commission and develop the tech and the platforms on which they operate, the onus is on the corporate world to ensure our platforms and products are as accessible as possible, using all the tools at our disposal to help level out the playing field.

Spring 2021 delivers an inflection point. We can choose to be a generation that harnesses the energy of change to empower inclusion, diversity and equality – not just in the workplace, but in life, in society, in our communities. We can make the world work better, and we can start by making sure everyone’s allowed in.