Digital Technology and the Construction of Disability: Internet and ICT Accessibility for Civic Engagement and a Participatory Economy

Abstract:

Despite the proliferation of Internet-enabled devices and a correspondingly greater degree of Internet access now enjoyed globally, people with disabilities continue to be excluded from the “participatory economy” that such access permits. Through their very design, websites, information and communication technologies (ICTs), and other digital media remain inaccessible to people with disabilities, and often contribute to the construction of disability in the digital age. This essay considers discussions surrounding the democratizing potential of the Internet and ICTs in relation to the question of “digital disability.” Accessibility is considered closely, figuring the issue as one of vital importance to the incorporation of people with disabilities into the digital public sphere as active and engaged citizens. This essay then shifts the discussion towards digital labor, arguing that rapid technological change, in an effort to increase efficiency and profit, continues to serve as an impediment to the integration of people with disabilities into the digital labor workforce and economy.

Introduction

One of the most ubiquitous terms to arise alongside the rapid growth of the Internet, information and communication technologies (ICTs), and digital media is the “digital divide.” Broadly, the term describes global inequalities in Internet and ICT access, with a concern that peripheral nations and communities –namely “information-poor” countries of the Global South—do not reap the Internet’s many benefits (Norris, 2001: 3). Central to theorizations of the digital divide is the notion that the Internet and ICTs are important to citizens, and that access is a political issue with various social, economic, educational, and cultural rewards. Pippa Norris notes that over time, the term has grown so much in popularity to the point that it “has entered everyday speech as shorthand for any and every disparity within the online community” (Norris, 2001: 3-4). One such community that has borrowed from the language of the digital divide is the disability community, who frame the lack of access to the Internet and ICTs for people with disabilities as a social and democratic divide. According to Norris, the former addresses a gap between “information rich and poor” within a nation, and the latter concerns “the difference between those who do, and do not, use the panoply of digital resources to engage, mobilize, and participate in public life” (Norris, 2001: 4). The assumption in Norris’s definition of a democratic divide is that access to the Internet and ICTs is instrumental and vital in the creation and maintenance of a democratic society, an assumption that has been adopted and repeated furiously by social theorists, policymakers, and disability rights activists alike.

Of course, I refer to the democratizing role of the Internet as an assumption because it is, and always has been, a highly debated and contested topic. While some theorists have optimistic, utopian views of the Internet’s potential for the formation of a public sphere and civic engagement (Benkler, 2006; Castells, 2012), others challenge these views and point to its complicity with capitalism and real-world inequalities (Dean, 2010; Terranova, 2000; Taylor, 2014). Despite the debates, lack of access to Internet and ICTs for people with disabilities remains an empirical fact (Dobransky and Hargittai, 2006), preventing many from engaging as active, informed, and productive citizens. In Disability and New Media (2011), Katie Ellis and Mike Kent consider how accessibility is a core tenant of the public sphere, while maintaining that the “bourgeois fantasy” of a Habermasian public sphere is mirrored in the Internet’s limitations, described as the digital divide (Ellis and Kent, 2011). This tension between the necessity for equal accessibility on the one hand, and the Internet’s limitations for fostering democratic civic engagement and providing unique social opportunities on the other, is highly relevant to people with disabilities and the ways in which they are included or excluded from what Manuel Castells (2012) terms “the network society.” This essay will first address the various theories of the Internet and ICTs’ democratizing capacities for people with disabilities, especially through their framing as emancipatory and capable of “overcoming” disability. I will then consider issues of technological access more closely, and how discussions surrounding accessibility address the conceptualization of people with disabilities as active and engaged citizens. This rhetoric gains increased importance and demands new critical attention when considered alongside the contemporary digital labor market, and its promise of a utopian information workforce devoid of physical demands. Therefore, the last part of this essay will explore disability’s development alongside major shifts in labor practices, and how people with disabilities figure into a growing digital economy.

The Politics of Digital Technology and Their Application for People with Disabilities

The role of technology in social, political and economic transformation has led to debates that have cast its participants into categories of optimists (including technological determinists and techno-utopians), pessimists, and skeptics. The optimists focus most pointedly on the Internet as a space for democratization and freedom. For technological optimists, some of the “utopian” features of the Internet include its potential to foster public spheres, online communities, creative individualism, and communal, anti-corporate production. Social and economic theorist Yochai Benkler sees the Internet and Internet-enabled devices as promoting a public sphere through a networked information society that “offers significant improvements over the [public sphere] dominated by commercial mass media” (Benkler, 2006: 215). He points to the rise of various platforms and tools such as email, the World Wide Web, blogs, and wikis as instrumental in the rise of a networked public sphere, while noting that “the networked public sphere is not made of tools, but of social production practices that these tools enable” (Benkler, 2006: 219). Despite avoiding the claim that technologies themselves are responsible for the rise of a networked public sphere and asserting the importance of “emerging nonmarket actors,” Benkler does strongly believe in the Internet’s democratizing effects. Variants of this optimistic perspective include the Internet’s potential for facilitating social movement and social change (Castell, 2012) and its ability to undo the roadblocks of traditional mass media to make room for more balanced cultural production and participation (Jenkins, Ford, and Green, 2013).

The pessimists, on the other hand, often point to the Internet’s widespread corporatization and its perpetuation of common inequalities. Tiziana Terranova writes that “it has been very tempting to counteract the naive technological utopianism by pointing out how computer networks are the material and ideological heart of information capital” (Terranova, 2000: 39). Blogging, for example, while celebrated by Benkler, is described by Jodi Dean as stimulated by capitalist pursuit in its production of communicative capital (Dean, 2010).

More useful than these optimistic or pessimistic accounts are what could be characterized as a middle ground approach to the political effects of the Internet. This approach sees in the Internet as creating spaces for various voices, while at the same time amplifying various real-world inequalities. This sentiment is reflected in various recent works that explore the intersection between ICTs and activism, and considers digital media, artifacts, and technologies as not determining of social or political outcomes, but not neutral either. Posing the question “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Langdon Winner situates himself between “social determination of technology” and “naïve technological determinism” to draw attention to the ways that artifacts contain political properties (Winner, 1980: 123). Winner’s middle-ground approach offers an illuminating entry point into considering the role of the Internet, digital media, and technological artifacts for people with disabilities, who are so commonly described as both in great need of such technologies, as well as systematically barred from them.

In Digital Disability (2003), their seminal work on disability and digital media, Gerard Goggin and Christopher Newell address the relevance of technological optimism and pessimism to disability. Following Winner, Goggin and Newell assert that “technology is inherently social and political, serving the interests of the status quo in society and symbolically legitimizing this society. Such an approach is a particularly important premise of our perspective on digital disability, running contrary to the ideas associated with technology being neutral and autonomous and determining our lives” (Goggin and Newell, 2003: 8-9). They also push against the idea that technologies are inherently progressive and autonomous, stating, “the idea that technology is autonomous conceals the political and social contradictions and conflict associated with . . . digital technologies — especially in relation to how disability is constructed with these technologies” (Goggin and Newell, 2003: 9). They note that technological developments such as the wheelchair and hearings aids are often considered within an ideology of progress and social betterment that favours efficiency over social, cultural, and psychological effects. The Internet follows suit: while it may provide various opportunities to people with disabilities, it also systematically positions them as “other,” “excluded or marginalized in the friction-free supposed utopia of cyberspace” (11) as a result of basic inaccessibility.

The recognition of digital technologies’ politicizing capacities is critical to an understanding of the somewhat paradoxical position they hold in the lives of people with disabilities. Goggin and Newell see disability as a controlled and contested sociopolitical space, which is routinely discussed within a “management” framework. For example, some of the scholarship addressing the digital divide between able-bodied and disabled Internet and ICT users have a managerial tone. Kerry Dobransky and Eszter Hargittai’s study of Internet accessibility for people with disabilities addresses this issue, concluding that while the Internet and other new media are often hailed as tools with which the disenfranchised might overcome oppression, such studies and discussions tend to reproduce the idea that disability is something to be overcome or managed (Dobransky and Hargittai, 2006: 315). The proliferation of ICTs and new technological artifacts has opened new channels for people with disabilities, but as Paul Jaeger notes, they “are also uncomfortable with their reliance on technologies” (Jaeger, 2012: 25). What is needed is a theory of digital technology that recognizes its democratizing and liberating potentials while at the same time taking into account the political and managerial outcomes of their application on peripheral users.

Accessibility and Civic Engagement

A common recurring discourse is that people with disabilities fill a lack through their engagement with technology. Assistive technologies, such as wheelchairs, canes, and hearing aids, are often considered “solutions” to various impairments. Ellis and Kent refer to this view as the “deficit model of disability,” which understands the interaction between people with disabilities and technologies as occurring at the individual level. This model is applied frequently and assumes that “lives can be made better by the development and application of technology” (Ellis and Kent, 2011: 82). Unfortunately, the deficit model is engaged with all-too-frequently in discussions of accessible technology.
Accessibility is a versatile, complex issue, and is a term that holds various meanings. While the term is often thought of as pertaining most pertinently to disability, it is in fact “a multifaceted phenomenon serving many groups of people” (Jaeger, 2012: 43). Much of the scholarship that addresses the “digital divide” is concerned with how greater proliferation of, and accessibility to, the Internet and ICTs will theoretically “bridge the gap” between connected and non-connected individuals. Greater access to information in general is largely considered a necessary component for civic engagement. This field of thought can be roughly categorized under universal access, which has making technology equally available to all as its goal. However, as Jaeger notes, policy-makers and scholars promoting universal access overlook its universal usefulness: “After access is available to all, people still need to be able to use what they have achieved access to. Universal access does not overcome barriers to access such as language, literacy, technological literacy, and disability” (Jaeger, 2012: 24-5).

For those concerned with access to technologies for people with disabilities, universal design is often considered one of the most useful methodologies for incorporating inclusion. Proponents of universal design place pressure on architects, designers, and programmers to consider a wide range of human abilities and identities during the design process. A shift toward greater implementation of universal design has various benefits to people with disabilities, but it would also benefit able-bodied or temporarily able-bodied groups as well. For example, sidewalk curb cuts, elevators, and ramps are central to the mobility of people in wheelchairs, but they are also useful to parents with strollers, the elderly, and people pulling heavy items such as luggage. Many accessibility features that were first introduced to ICTs for users with disabilities, such as predictive text, text-to-speech software, and hot keys, went on to find mainstream adoption (Ellis and Kent, 2011: 144). Furthermore, universal design removes the conversation away from accessibility and the “special needs” discourse it fosters. As Ellis and Kent argue, “When accessibility is added onto media and communications technologies, rather than built into design from the beginning, solutions are considered ‘special’ and are stigmatized” (Ellis and Kent, 2011: 90). Greater incorporation of universal design would help to eradicate the stigma that people with disabilities face when using assistive software and technologies, a stigma which further dehumanizes and marginalizes people with disabilities.

Universal design is, however, not widely practiced and people with disabilities are often left no other option than navigating accessibility technologies and features. Screen-readers are an example of an assistive technology that allow people with vision impairments to read what is displayed on a computer screen, but many websites remain incompatible with screen-readers through their design (Dobransky and Hargittai, 2006: 316). This “reactive” retrofitting of digital technologies to meet the needs of people with disabilities can be understood as a broader social reflection on who is deemed “worthy” of accessing the Internet and ICTs in the first place. Winner made the point in his 1980 essay that “we usually do not stop to inquire whether a given device might have been designed and built in such a way that it produces a set of consequences logically and temporally prior to any of its professed uses” (Winner, 1980: 126). The consequence for people with disabilities is that they are systematically excluded from online worlds and from engaging with its various offerings.

While it is certainly true that access to technology does not equal access to information, it is also true that access to the Internet and ICTs is gateway for many to play an active role as informed citizens and productive actors. Norris (2001: 19) claims that “information and the mechanisms for delivering it are the lifeblood and sinews of the body politic,” and Jaeger (2012: 33) calls equal access to the Internet “vital for equal participation in society.” Active citizenship in the so-called “Information Age” requires constant engagement with the Internet and ICTs. And for people with disabilities, access can mean an unprecedented opportunity to engage in social and political conversations. Jaeger summarizes this idea succinctly:

The Internet has the potential to be the greatest mechanism for inclusion of people with disabilities ever invented. The ability to communicate and participate in activities in real time anywhere in the world without leaving home opens up enormous new avenues of participation for people with the entire range of physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities. Physical barriers, transportation challenges, communication difficulties, and other major barriers to participation can be overcome through an accessible Internet and create wide new vistas for civic engagement, education, employment, and social interaction. (Jaeger, 2012: 33)

Despite this, there is evidence that people with disabilities are less likely to go online, and are less likely to have computers in their home, than people without disabilities (Dobransky and Hargittai, 2006: 313, 317-8, 324), which is no doubt due in part to the fact that people with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed and have less income than people without disabilities.

These barriers to access and participation raise the question of whether people with disabilities can even be considered citizens at all. Goggin and Newell believe that people with disabilities are often excluded from conceptions of citizenship through new techniques and forms of governmentality (50), asking, “When you are a person with multiple speech and communication disabilities for whom the communication system is not viable at all, how are you expected to participate as an active citizen in the process of governmentality” (Goggin and Newell, 2003: 58)? They note that disability is generally not central to questions about how societies are governed, nor is it often discussed in the context of “the reinvigoration of civil society.”

To take an example, social networks such as Facebook are often cited as online public spheres where users nurture civic engagement and mobilize social movements. Social networks are also platforms for the practice of E-government, and have been instrumental in reshaping common understandings of community, individualism, locality, and globalism. Ellis and Kent write that “online social networking addresses many issues people with disability experience when attempting to mobilize politically or socially” (Ellis and Kent, 2011: 106). However, many people with disabilities encounter barriers to accessing Facebook; interface usability, CAPTCHAs, and “hard-coded” features make it difficult for many to use adaptive technologies, such as screen readers, on the site. Further, there is evidence that a large percentage of Internet-using people with disabilities do not engage actively with “political” or “civic” matters, preferring to log in to play games or look for health information (Dobransky and Hargittai, 2006: 329). To this end, even when access and usability for people with disabilities is achieved, they remain marginal to “mainstream” net spaces. Virtual spaces, including social networks, are also frequently celebrated for their ability to “remove” or mask a person’s disability from online social interactions, but this does little to change real-world experiences. As peripheral Internet users who are often unable to navigate mainstream ableist net spaces, people with disabilities become newly marginalized through what Ellis and Kent call the “digital production of disability” (Ellis and Kent, 2011: 110).

The Digital Production of Disability and Digital Labor

The digital production of disability can be understood as a contemporary phase in the history of “producing disability,” a process that is influenced by the 19th- and early 20th-century social methods of defining and managing disability, and that is a direct result of recent trends in Internet corporatization. Finkelstein identifies three distinct phases in the “creation” of disability. The first phase is the feudal era, in which there was no formal grouping or marginalizing of people with disabilities. The second phase marks the emergence of concepts of able-bodied normality, which took place alongside large-scale industrialization. The Industrial Revolution and its reliance on bodies of labor had no place for “crippled” or “handicapped” bodies, and so it was during this time that the medical institutionalization of disability became widespread (Ellis and Kent, 2011: 25, 87). In Finkelstein’s words, “the segregation and discrimination suffered by disabled people can be seen as the form that oppression takes for physically impaired people in [phase two]. From this perspective, in industrialised societies, phase two can be seen as the period in which cripples disappeared and disability was created” (Finkelstein, 1980: 8). The third phase for Finkelstein, which coincides with the ongoing Information Revolution, is supposed to bring about the social reintegration of people with disabilities through ICTs. As we have seen, this utopian, technological deterministic vision is far from reality; from certain perspectives, people with disabilities are more excluded from informational occupations than industrial and agricultural sectors (Ellis and Kent, 2011: 87-8).

Just as the original category of disability resulted from capitalist axioms of ability and productivity, digital disability is a result of neoliberal capitalist trends and corporate discourses surrounding the Internet and ICTs. Despite its origins as a not-for-profit, free-shared space, the Internet has developed primarily along ideologies of market capitalism (Ellis and Kent, 2011: 72). The “dot-com bubble” and subsequent popularization of web 2.0 marked the beginning of the Internet’s widespread commercialization, a project which trumped accessibility. According to Ellis and Kent, “in the rush for profits, people with disability were left behind. The dot-com bubble had seen a rush to market by many companies trying to cash in on the boom. This often left accessibility features overlooked or ignored” (Ellis and Kent, 2011: 73). As during the Industrial Revolution, the rapid corporate expansion of the Internet during the early 2000s has created new dimensions of disability by failing to consider people with disabilities as among its potential developers or benefactors.

And yet, people with disabilities once again inhabit a paradoxical position vis-à-vis the Internet’s new dimensions of business and control. On the one hand, new market economics allow for the corporate takeover of problems that were previously the domain of the state. However, this “light-touch” regulation allows the market to be, according to Goggin and Newell, “narrowly conceptualized in terms of neoclassical economics, a form of economics that conceives disability in terms of cost and deficit, as opposed to rights and consumer needs” (Goggin and Newell, 2003: 41). In this sense, people with disabilities’ rights and needs are frequently overlooked. But on the other hand, paying attention to the needs of people with disabilities is in the interest of large corporations. People with disabilities are often interpolated as active consumer-citizens, but are not treated as such. One of the ironies of this is that many virtual networks, such as Facebook, measure their strength based on the number of people in the network and contributing to them. So while it would seem that according to new market logic the greatest amount of inclusion possible would be desirable to Internet corporations, they continue to envision people with disabilities and their total digital incorporation as unprofitable.

As mentioned, lack of access to the Internet and to ICTs greatly narrows people with disabilities’ capacity to participate and engage with new media. Authors such as Henry Jenkins argue that the Internet fosters a participatory culture and economy. Jenkins and colleagues write that “spreadability” refers to, among other things, “the technical resources that make it easier to circulate some kinds of content than others” (Jenkins, Ford, and Green, 2013: 4). They see the potential of spreadable digital media for changing how media is produced, consumed, and shared, which in turn places greater emphasis on “consumers” or “publics.” Spreadable material is repositioned, remade, and repurposed, and thus challenges the “one-size-fits-all” model of content creation to fit the needs of any person.

Spreadable media also challenges Digital Rights Management (DRM), and the barriers it poses to accessibility. In hands of publishers, “sticky” content is inflexible, often impossible to access in different formats using adaptive technologies. Many web publishers bypass accessibility in favor of protecting digital files from copyright violations, uninterested in the demands of the disability community (Ellis and Kent, 2011: 135). The usefulness of a concept of participatory culture and spreadable media for people with disabilities is clear, which share similarities with universal design and their focus on adaptable usage. But this model is limited in its failure to take into full account issues of accessibility and ownership.

According to Crawford Brough Macpherson, a participatory economy requires “a change in the terms of access to capital in the direction of more nearly equal access” and “a change to more nearly equal access to the means of labor” (Macpherson, 1973: 71). People with disabilities do not only lack the means of accessing the “technical resources” that Jenkins and colleagues name as vital to spreadability and participation, but they also lack access to capital and to the means of labor. As a community with one of the lowest rates of education, highest rates of unemployment, and who are generally poorer than the general population (Dobransky and Hargittai, 2006: 318), people with disabilities are excluded from the avenues that able-bodied people might navigate to contribute to, gain from, and shape a participatory economy.
Not only do people with disabilities have a large rate of unemployment, they are also largely considered the antithesis of workers. The emergence and widespread expansion of a digital labor market has the potential to remove some of the physical barriers to employment that people with disabilities faced under industrial labor. Furthermore, incorporation into a digital labor workforce allows people with disabilities to work in an environment where most every person’s physical features are “hidden,” reducing exposure to stigma. But like developers of most ICTs and social networks, the digital labor market has not considered people with disabilities as among its target demographic, and issues with accessibility abound.

Even if a person with a disability does manage to procure employment in the digital labor market, their work patterns and rhythms might be seen as a hindrance to the speed and efficiency of the New Economy workplace. For example, people with vision impairments who rely on assistive technologies such as screen readers are required to know extra skills to work with assistive technologies, and therefore need to do more than sighted people to get the same work done. Additionally, sudden changes in digital software tools, such as upgrades, might improve efficiency for some, but prove disastrous for others. For example, according to the National Council on Disability:

The move from text-oriented DOS-based to graphical Windows-based computer operating systems resulted in precipitous losses in access (and, according to reports at the time, losses in jobs) for persons using speech or braille for their computer output. Largely unaided by mainstream developers, it took the AT industry several years to develop viable Windows-access strategies, and some say the ground lost has never been fully regained. (Goggin and Newell, 2003: 118)

In an industry that values rapid technological change as a means of increasing efficiency and profit, people with disabilities are frequently left behind in “adapt or die” situations.
Most concerning about the lack of incorporation of people with disabilities into the digital labor market is the fact that Internet and ICT developers are complicit in the production of disability. In No-collar, Andrew Ross documents the contribution of the industrial and corporate workplace to workers’ health. Ross remarks, “office automation eliminated many menial tasks but also introduced white-collar employees to a range of new physical ailments and nervous disorders” (Ross, 2003: 5). Capitalist work has always exposed workers to physical and mental damage, and the digital economy continues this pattern. From the factories where they are produced, to the corporate workplace, to the landfills that make up their final resting places, computers and ICTs leave a trail of hazards and risks that contribute to impairment and illness. Occupational disabilities, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, computer vision syndrome, and repetitive strain injuries (commonly referred by such names as “Blackberry thumb” and “Emacs pinky”) are exacerbated in the digital workplace. Despite being imagined as a site of intellectual labor that transcends the physical requirements of the industrial economy, digital labor continues to require, and continues to deteriorate, able bodies.

Conclusion

If anything is clear, it is that people with disabilities have a complicated, at times paradoxical relationship with technology. On the one hand, assistive technologies from cochlear implants to screen readers provide people with disabilities the means of performing various “everyday” tasks such as listening to public radio or contributing to online forums. On the other hand, assistive technologies and ICTs in general are complicit in “managing” and “normalizing” disability. The prevailing presumption of researchers who address the “digital divide” in Internet access and use between people with and without disabilities is that greater access and use will improve quality of life and civic engagement. However, Dobransky and Hargittai consider in their study an often-unexplored fact: “it may be that some people simply do not want to go online” (Dobransky and Hargittai, 2006: 317). To be sure, this is framed by the authors as due to a lack of information about the medium’s benefits, but it is a possibility that ought to be considered more closely. In 2002, amid the hype of the “digital divide” as a major policy issue, Sally Wyatt, Graham Thomas and Tiziana Terranova sought out to challenge the idea that every person is simply a potential user awaiting internet access (Wyatt, Thomas, and Terranova, 2002: 9). Reflecting on this study, Wyatt writes that “focusing on use to the neglect of non-use means we are in danger of uncritically accepting the promises of technology. Defining people as either producers or users, and sometimes both, confirms the technocratic vision of the centrality of technology” (Wyatt, Thomas, and Terranova, 2002: 13). Considering voluntary non-use of the Internet and ICTs allows one to move away from the idea that all people with disabilities would undoubtedly benefit from greater access, and allows for a focus on autonomy and independence instead of charitable assistance.

Despite this, accessibility continues to be a major concern for disability rights activists, policymakers, and digital producers. Universal design remains the standard for accessibility, which focuses on considering a wide range of user abilities prior to designing technological artifacts, programs, and websites. One of the keys to universal design is greater participation in design. Web 2.0 was developed along the philosophy of relinquishing control by sharing ideas and building upon the collaboration of others. At the same time, Web 2.0’s focus on multimedia, plug-ins, and regular updates has posed challenges for people with disabilities (Ellis and Kent, 2011: 25, 46). Ellis and Kent propose reimagining accessibility through their concept of “accessibility 2.0,” which refers to “the capacity to access information in the format of choice when working within the largely unstructured environment of user-generated content.” They continue by explaining that “accessibility 2.0 follows a social understanding of disability by focusing on the purpose of the resource. It assumes different people use the web in different ways and that accessibility is a process rather than a finite solution” (Ellis and Kent, 2011: 25-6) With a focus on participation, collaboration, and the loosening of restrictions, accessibility advocates might look to the efforts of FOSS (Free Open Source Software) developers and supporters, and their opposition to the corporate ownership of software. The process of accessibility has the potential to become more fully incorporated into technological design if users are able to more fully participate in the creation of artifacts, software, and sites. Further, digital content has the potential to become more accessible (and therefore more fruitful) to various users’ needs when it is not so tightly controlled by publishers; applying a “spreadable” philosophy to media allows people with disabilities to manage and manipulate digital content to their advantage, and allows for a more collaborative Internet community.

Greater critical attention to accessibility and its relationship to the structures of corporate ownership are necessary in order to better incorporate people with disabilities into the (digital) workforce. Participatory Internet ownership structures are central to a participatory democracy, but are far from the current reality. Increased focus on accessibility has the potential to challenge this paradigm by affording users greater control in virtual landscapes. Although the digital labor market provides opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in the New Economy and improve their socio-economic status, the nature of this economy is primarily one of exclusion and exploitation. Additionally, class position plays a large factor in such situations. As Jaeger notes, “in Western culture, disability historically has served as a dividing line between ‘worthy poor’ and ‘undeserving poor,’ creating other linguistic connotations that raise concerns of economic subjugation” (Jaeger, 2012: 21). There is a need for digital labor theory to more thoroughly address disability as an identity category historically barred from access to capital and labor, but whose productive capacity in online labor markets is both evident and at stake.

Addressing these issues is imperative as the Information Age moves forward, increasing opportunities for some while leaving others with greater inequalities. The dominant notion that ICTs naturally become “better” over time needs to be challenged in recognition of the political consequences of increased “efficiency” and miniaturization (Mills, 2011). As global disability grows as a result of ageing populations, environmental degradation, and workplace hazards, we would be wise to abandon the language of a “digital divide” by recognizing a diverse global population with disparate abilities.

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