Bridging the Disability Divide: Success Factors and Challenges

41 Pages Posted: 2 Apr 2012 Last revised: 24 Sep 2012

Date Written: March 31, 2012


This paper will examine the current status of access for individuals with disabilities to broadband infrastructures, technologies and services, specifically those deployed by the cable industry. It will investigate efforts to improve broadband access to the disabled, through market-driven initiatives, public-private partnerships and regulatory mandates, and comparatively evaluate their efficacy in improving disability access. The objective is to identify programs and policies that promote disability access, while also fostering an optimum climate for business innovation in access technologies and services.

Approximately 41.3 million Americans or 15.1 percent of the population have some form of disability. This number will probably increase in the years to come because of increasing longevity, better healthcare and the high percentage of baby boomers now heading into retirement. Broadband technologies have been recognized as having the potential to assist individuals with disabilities to lead more productive lives and integrate better into their local communities.

Yet, paradoxically, the rate of broadband adoption and use amond the disabled (42%) is lower than that in the overall population (65%) (Lyle, 2010). Though similar gaps exist for rural residents, the less educated, urban minorities and the poor, access for the disabled presents a more complex challenge: in addition to the barriers of cost and availability common to all these groups, the disabled also confront problems emerging from the limitations of the technologies and interfaces themselves. Universal broadband access for the disabled is thus a bigger challenge.

In view of this challenge, a number of efforts have been undertaken to improve access for persons with disabilities to broadband technologies and services, running the gamut from market-driven initiatives, public-private partnerships and regulatory mandates. Market-driven efforts are based on the recognition by businesses that assistive technologies and services can find viable markets in the disabled community, and potentially, make the platform more attractive to non-disabled users as well. Many new devices have incorporated assistive technologies such as text-to-speech software to enable access by the disabled. Second, public-private partnerships involving cooperation between advocacy groups or government agencies and industry have sought to improve broadband access for the disabled. For example, the “DeafBlind Communicator,” a braille keyboard that connects wirelessly to cell phones, was developed through a partnership between the state of Washington’s Office of Deaf and Hard of Hearing and Humanware, a Canadian assistive technology company (Lyle, 2010). A third approach relies on legislation or regulation to mandate certain disability-related modifications to content or technology, for example, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (the CVAA).

The choice between these alternative approaches is not clear-cut, since they all have advantages and disadvantages. Disability advocates have argued that profit-oriented firms are unlikely to make accommodations for disabilities, unless there is a proven market potential for such products and services. Public-private partnerships may offer a better model, but they too are subject to the same economic forces as purely market-driven actions. Regulation offers the promise of a universal and immediate solution, but it may freeze access standards at the minimum required by law, and reduce incentives for innovation.

Though it affects a significant minority of Americans, broadband access for the disabled has not attracted a lot of academic research (for a brief survey, see Sawhney & Jayakar, 2007). With the exception of Robare (2011), articles are published mostly in journals specializing in disability studies such as Disability and Society, the Disability Studies Quarterly, and the Hearing Journal (Endres, 2009; Gregg, 2006; Simpson, 2009). Downey (2008) has published an excellent book on closed captioning. On the CVAA, there has been extensive coverage in the trade press (to cite only a representative few, Eggerton, 2011; McAdams, 2011; Tremaine, Sloan & Hurd, 2011), and at academic conferences (Jayakar, 2011). This paper will fill a gap in the academic literature on universal broadband access for the disabled.

In view of the above, there is need to investigate the means of promoting disability access on broadband networks, while also fostering an optimum climate for business innovation in access technologies and services. Specifically, it will answer the following research questions.

RQ1: What technologies, products and services are currently available to promote access to broadband for individuals with disabilities? In answering this question, the paper will attempt to cast the net wide and identify the broad spectrum of interventions enabling access by the disabled, including modifications of content (eg. closed captioning of television content), hardware and software adaptations at the customer premises (eg. hearing aid compatible IP-enabled devices or text-to-speech conversion software), or alternative technology platforms (eg. video relay services). Interventions at different stages of the production-distribution-consumption continuum have implications for the re-allocation of costs between participants. For example, while adaptation of content through technologies such as closed captioning or video description impose costs on content producers, the cost of access devices might be borne by consumers or last-mile providers.

RQ2: What programs and policies, such as market-driven initiatives, public-private partnerships, regulatory mandates, or others, have been implemented to make available the disability access technologies, products and services identified in RQ1? To answer this question, the paper will identify a select number of policies and programs indicative of different approaches to promoting disability access, and analyze them in terms of participants, financing, and consumer benefit, and other operational details. It will also be relevant to compare if specific approaches have been favored for the promotion of interventions at the specific stages of the production-distribution-consumption continuum. For example, are market-based approach more appropriate for interventions directed at Consumer Premises Equipment (CPE), while regulatory approaches are more often used for interventions at the production end?

RQ3: What metrics are appropriate for evaluating the success of programs and policies for promoting broadband access for persons with disabilities? Based on these metrics, which approach has the greatest relative advantage? There are many metrics to measure program success — a preliminary list might include consumer benefit, penetration or consumer uptake, cost efficiency, sustainability (without cross-subsidies), etc. Choosing a single metric to measure program success might bias the results, implying that a combination of metrics might need to be used.

This paper will be based on published material such as news reports, trade press articles, scholarly research, regulatory reports from agencies such as the FCC, supplemented by a limited number of interviews with decision-makers in the cable industry and advocacy groups. RQ1 will be answered with archival news research. RQ2 will use comparative case studies of selected programs for promoting broadband access for the disabled, using Yin’s (2008) methodology for case selection. Data from the FCC or from industry groups such as the NCTA will be utilized to investigate RQ3.

This paper was supported by a research award from the Time Warner Cable Research Program on Digital Communication. If accepted, the final report will be presented at TPRC. It will not be publicly presented or published in any other forum prior to that date.

Keywords: disability, universal access, digital divide, assistive technology, accessibility

Suggested Citation

Jayakar, Krishna, Bridging the Disability Divide: Success Factors and Challenges (March 31, 2012). 2012 TRPC, Available at SSRN: or

Krishna Jayakar (Contact Author)

Pennsylvania State University ( email )

University Park
State College, PA 16802
United States

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