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Rural Facts

Disability and the Digital Divide: Comparing Surveys with Disability Data

June, 2006

Surveys consistently report that people with disabilities have only half the rate of Internet access of people without a disability. Despite regular increases over time, people with disabilities have not caught up, and still face a significant digital divide.

Americans’ economic, political, and social participation increasingly depends on their information technology skills, and access to computers and the Internet. People with less access are educationally, economically, and politically disadvantaged. The U.S. Government Accountability Office says, “The Internet offers Americans a gateway to a vast array of content and applications, and is expected to become a primary medium for communications, commerce, education, and entertainment in the 21st century” (GAO, 2001).

In September 2001, 143 million Americans (54%) used the Internet. In A Nation Online (2002), the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) declared the digital divide closed. If the criterion for closing the digital divide is that more than half of Americans use the Internet, people with disabilities aren’t there yet. Although the online nation expects mobile access and high speed connectivity, millions still wait beside the information superhighway. The most current data (October 2003) show Internet use by fewer than 30% of those with disabilities over age 15 while more than 60% of those with no disability used the Internet at some location.

National focus is now on high-speed Internet access, anytime and anywhere. Faster speeds and connectivity are also important to people with disabilities (e.g. broadband makes real-time online sign language interpreting feasible). However, when reaching out to people with disabilities, it’s important to remember that a significant digital divide still exists. This Ruralfacts looks at national surveys on Internet access and use, only two of which repeatedly asked the same questions the same way, of the same type of sample, and for the same age categories. The others defined disability differently, used different age categories, and/or reported limited disability data. For more information, see the original sources listed under “references”.

NTIA and the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Agency (ESA) based their series of reports on a Computer and Internet Use Supplement survey added to the monthly U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey (CPS) of approximately 57,000 households (on which one member reports for all in the household) with more than 137,000 individuals. This series’ datasets on Internet use, broadband, and computer connectivity are broad-based and reliable (see survey methodology, documentation, and data at http://www.bls.census.gov/cps/computer/computer.htm). The first four Falling through the Net (FTTN) reports were on the digital divide. The 2001 report’s title, A Nation Online, reflected that a majority of Americans now used the Internet. The September 2001 and October 2003 NTIA/ESA Computer and Internet Use Supplement surveys both included the same disability questions. RTC: Rural researchers analyzed these data for metropolitan and non-metropolitan differences. Please note: “Non-metro” is not the same as “rural”. Half of rural Americans live in metro areas (Seekins & Enders, 2005a, 2005b).

A Brief History of Disability Questions in Population Based Surveys

1998: National Organization on Disability (NOD)/Harris Surveys Focusing on the Internet’s impact on community participation, NOD reported that 30% of people with disabilities had computer access at home, and 14% used the Internet at home. Their 2000 report showed 43% of people with disabilities, and 57% of people with no disability, using the Internet. More people with disabilities were unemployed and therefore, less likely to use the Internet at work (16% v. 30%).

1999: First federal disability data The first three Computer and Internet Use Supplement surveys didn’t include a disability question. The March CPS asks if respondents have a “work disability”. Because the July 1999 CPS sample included 25% of the people in the March sample, the Disability Statistics Center could match FTTN3 data to this sub-sample’s data (Kaye, 2000). They found, for individuals age 15 and older: 9.9% of those with disability used the Internet anywhere versus 38.1% of those without disability; 23.9% of respondents with disabilities lived in a household with a computer versus 51.7% of those without disabilities; 11.4% of those with disability lived in a household with Internet access versus 31.1% of those without disability; and 7.2% of respondents with disability used the Internet at home versus 25.9% of those without disability.

The March CPS “work disability” question is controversial because it doesn’t identify people with disability who are too young or too old to be in the workforce, and doesn’t capture disability’s functional aspects (Silverstein, Julnes, & Nolan, 2005). For more information on this issue, see page 5 of http://www.disabilitypolicycenter.org/docs/BSL_v23_2005.pdf.

2000: First metro-nonmetro disability data RTC: Rural asked the Disability Statistics Center to analyze the data for metro-nonmetro differences, but due to small sample size and problems with the CPS work disability question, the data were not considered robust. Findings were published in Rates of computer and Internet use: A comparison of urban and rural access by people with disabilities (Enders & Spas, 2000). For respondents age 15 and older: 7% of non-metro individuals with disability used the Internet anywhere versus 33% of non-metro respondents without disability; 11% of metro individuals with disability used the Internet anywhere versus 40% of metro respondents without disability. 20% of non-metro respondents with disability lived in a household with a computer versus 25% of non-metro respondents without disability. 45% of metro respondents with disability lived in households with a computer versus 54% of metro respondents without disability.

2000: NTIA/ESA reports first disability data In a section on disability, FTTN4 used disability data collected in a November 1999 Survey of Income & Program Participation (SIPP) supplement. For respondents age 16 and older: 28% with disability used the Internet anywhere compared to 57% of those without disability. 22% of those with disability had Internet access in their households, compared to 42% of those without disability.

2001: NTIA/ESA CPS – Computer and Internet Use Supplement survey includes disability questions Reported February 2002, based on September 2001 data. See Table 1 for RTC: Rural’s metro/non-metro data analysis.

The September 2001 and October 2003 NTIA/ESA Computer and Internet Use Supplement survey asked:
*Do you have the following long-lasting physical condition?
1. Blindness or a severe vision impairment even with glasses or contact lenses?
2. Deafness or a severe hearing impairment even with a hearing aid?
3. A physical condition that substantially limits your ability to walk or climb stairs?
4. A condition that makes it difficult to type on an ordinary typewriter or keyboard?


2002: SIPP disability module collects Internet use data again Americans with Disabilities: 2002 raw data available at: http://www.sipp.census.gov/sipp/. September 2002 data, reported May 2006, showed that 46.7% of respondents ages 15-64 with non-severe disabilities used the Internet at home, compared to 28.5% of those with severe disabilities and 50.9% of those without disability. For respondents age 65 and older, 17.5% of those with non-severe disabilities used the Internet at home, compared to 7.5% of those with severe disabilities and 21.2% of respondents without disability.

2003: NTIA CPS Computer and Internet Use Supplement survey integrates disability questions again October 2003 data, reported September 2004. Table 1 compares metro and non-metro disability data across both A Nation Online reports. RTC: Rural researchers conducted this analysis.

Table 1. A Nation Online Reports: Comparison of U.S. Disability Data, Ages 15+
Description of Table 1

2002 (CPS 9/2001) 2004 (CPS 10/2003)
% of total % Metro % Non-metro % of total % Metro % Non-metro

Uses Internet at any location

    No disability

   *With disability

54.5  55.9 50.3 59.4 61.0 54.9
56.9 58.2 53.2 62.3 63.7 58.1
26.1 27.3 23.4 29.5 30.6 26.7
With household Internet access

    No disability

   *With disability

56.559.049.2 61.8 63.9 55.3

58.660.951.6 64.1 66.1 58.0 32.6 35.2 26.737.739.832.7Uses Internet at home

    No disability

   *With disability

43.945.838.5 48.2 50.2 42.545.952.440.7 50.5 52.4 45.0 21.1 22.5 18.124.325.521.5With household computer

    No disability

   *With disability

64.366.159.1 69.2 70.7 65.066.467.961.7 71.6 72.8 .67.0 40.2 42.7 34.544.546.440.1


Dobransky and Hargittai (2006) restricted their analysis of this dataset to self-reporting individuals over 18. As expected, their findings vary slightly from the full sample. Internet use at any location is similar. Internet access at home is consistently about 5% lower; Internet use at home is about 2-4% higher; and a computer in the household is 6-8% lower. Their analysis suggests causal relationships. In particular, if socioeconomic status is controlled for, people with hearing or mobility disabilities are as likely as others to use the Internet.

2003: The Pew Internet and American Life Project March-May 2003 telephone interviews included disability questions. Part 7 of Pew’s 2003 report, The Ever-Shifting Internet Population: A New Look at Internet Access and the Digital Divide analyzes disability data. 58% of the total population and 38% of people with disability reported using the Internet (No report on Internet users without disability).

What do the national surveys tell us? Estimates of Internet access and use by people with disabilities have ranged from 10-80%. These surveys consistently show that as computer access and Internet use steadily increase, non-metro people with disabilities report about half the access rates of metro or non-metro people with no disability. RTC: Rural analysis of 2001 and 2003 CPS supplement raw data showed people with disabilities still experiencing a significant digital divide. Since 2001, more than half of Americans have been reported to have Internet access, but despite regular increases over time those with disabilities are not catching up.

Despite the regular increases, both metro and non-metro people with disabilities have lower rates of Internet use than their geographic counterparts with no disability. However, non-metro people with disabilities have the lowest rate (26.7%).

Except for connection speeds, the rural digital divide is almost closed. The 1995 NTIA/ESA digital divide report showed the rural poor (income less than $10,000) having the lowest rates of computer ownership (rural poor, 4.5% vs. urban poor, 8.1%). 24% of poor rural computer owners had modems, compared to 44% of poor urban computer owners. The 2004 Pew report concluded that rural Americans’ Internet use had grown in 2003, but continued to lag behind that of others. Pew’s analysis found that rural residence had little or no influence on Internet use, but that rural low-income people used the Internet less than urban or suburban low-income people. Rural demographics may explain this – older, low-income, less-educated people use information technology less. Compared to urban or suburban Americans, rural people tend to be older, poorer and less-educated.

The Pew study did not identify people with disabilities. However, Americans with disabilities are often among the poorest and least-employed. Based on income, rural people with disabilities would be expected to use the Internet less. They have less discretionary income to buy Internet service and, if unemployed, lack workplace Internet access.

Why? What can increase Internet use? A fact sheet can’t provide a detailed analysis, but some sources (e.g. Dobransky & Hargittai) do describe causal factors. Some people, regardless of disability, don’t care to use the Internet. Speculation and data also cite reasons of cost, culture, language, and location, etc. (see studies at http://www.pewInternet.org).

In addition, people with disabilities may face other obstacles:

  • Adapted hardware and software can be costly. Almost 40% of people with disabilities live in homes with Internet access, but only 24% of them use the Internet at home.
  • Locations for Internet access may be limited. Users of assistive technology and/or customized configurations can only access the Internet where these accommodations are available, which limits their access at public libraries, community centers, or in the homes of friends. Public locations may not be physically accessible to people using mobility devices. 24% of people with disabilities use the Internet at home and about 30% report using it from any location. Half of people with no disability use the Internet at home and more than 60% use it from any location.
  • Workplace Internet access may be unavailable because people with disabilities are less likely to be employed.
  • Internet content may be frustrating – many web sites are not accessible to people using assistive technology such as screen readers. Federal government web site accessibility is mandatory, but court rulings on Americans with Disabilities Act applicability to non-government web sites have been inconsistent and contradictory.

Why does access matter? While the more than 70% of people with disabilities who are still on the wrong side of the digital divide strive to catch up with the “nation online”, it is essential that this gateway technology not inadvertently be used to further exclude them. Online information is too frequently assumed to be available to everyone. Internet survey results are assumed to reflect the entire population, rather than just those with Internet access. When only those with access respond, the assumption is that everyone has access. A 2005 Pew report on the Future of the Internet predicts that “Anything that has involved an intermediary will be changed. New kinds of intermediaries will emerge…greater offloading of work tasks from organizations to their customers with less and less human help or customer service available…services and support will be available, but only for a fee.”

If Internet access rates for people with disabilities continue to be only half those of the general population, the disability digital divide will never close. Acknowledging this wide gap is a start. Closing the divide requires focusing attention on new strategies and making the accessibility and usability of these 21st century technologies a priority.


Bell, P., Reddy, P., & Rainie, L. (2004). Rural areas and the Internet: Rural Americans’ Internet use has grown, but they continue to lag behind others. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project. http://www.pewInternet.org/PPF/r/112/report_display.asp

Dobransky, K. & Hargittai, E. (2006). The disability divide in Internet access and use. Information, Communication & Society, 9, 3, 313-334.

Drainoni, M., Houlihan, B., Williams, S., et al. (2004). Patterns of Internet use by persons with spinal cord injuries and relationship to health-related quality of life. Archives of Physical and Medical Rehabilitation. 85,1872-1879.

Enders, A. & Spas, D. (2000). Rates of computer and Internet use: A comparison of urban and rural access by people with disabilities. (Factsheet) Missoula: The University of Montana Rural Institute. Updated at: http://rtc.ruralinstitute.umt.edu/TelCom/computer.htm

Fox, S., Quitney-Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2005). Future of the Internet. Washington, DC: The Pew Internet and American Life Project.  http://www.pewInternet.org/PPF/r/145/report_display.asp

Kaye, S. (2000). Computer and Internet use among people with disabilities. Disabilities Statistics Report 13. Washington, DC: National Institute on Disability & Rehab. Research. http://dsc.ucsf.edu/pdf/report13.pdf

Lenhart, A., Horrigan, J., Allen, K., et al. (2003). The ever-shifting Internet population: A new look at Internet access and the digital divide. Washington, DC: The Pew Internet and American Life Project. http://www.pewInternet.org/PPF/r/88/report_display.asp

National Council on Disability. (2002). National disability policy: A progress report for December 2000 – December 2001. Washington, DC: NCD. http://www.ncd.gov/newsroom/publications/2002/pdf/progressreport_07–26-02.pdf

National Organization on Disability & L. Harris & Assoc. (2000). How the Internet is improving the lives of Americans with disabilities. Washington, DC: NOD.

Seekins, T. & Enders, A. (2005a). Update on the demography of rural disability: Rural and urban. Missoula: The University of Montana Rural Institute. http://rtc.ruralinstitute.umt.edu/RuDis/RuDemography.htm

Seekins, T. & Enders, A. (2005b). Update on the demography of rural disability: Non-metropolitan and metropolitan. Missoula: The University of Montana Rural Institute. http://rtc.ruralinstitute.umt.edu/

Seymour, W. & Lupton, D. (2004). Holding the line online: Exploring wired relationships for people with disabilities. Disability and Society, 19, 291-305.

Silverstein, R., Julnes, G., & Nolan, R. (2005). What policymakers need and must demand from research regarding the employment rate of persons with disabilities. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 23, 399–448. http://www.disabilitypolicycenter.org/docs/BSL_v23_2005.pdf

Steinmetz, E. (2006). Americans with disabilities: 2002. Household Economic Studies, Current Population Reports P70-107. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.

U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Economics & Statistics Admin./National Telecommunications & Information Admin.: Six reports on Americans’ use of computers, the Internet, and other information technology tools. Data were collected as part of a Computer and Internet Use Supplement survey in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. Methodology, documentation, and data at: www.bls.census.gov/cps/computer/computer.htm

(1995). Falling through the net: A survey of the “have nots” in rural and urban America. NTIS No. PB95272084. Data from 11/94. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fallingthru.html

(1998). Falling through the net: New data on the digital divide. NTIS No.PB99156614. Data from 10/97. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/net2/falling.html

(1999). Falling through the net: Defining the digital divide. NTIS No.PB99144487. Revised data from 11/99. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fttn99/contents.html

(2000). Falling through the net: Toward digital inclusion: A report on Americans’ access to technology tools. NTIS No. PB2001100558. Data from 8/2000. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fttn00/contents00.html

(2002). A nation on-line: How Americans are expanding their use of the Internet. NTIS No.PB2002107910. Data from 9/01 CPS. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/opadhome/digitalnation/index_2002.html

(2004). A nation on-line: Entering the broadband age. NTIS No.PB2005102945. Data from 10/03. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/reports/anol/index.html

U.S. General Accountability Office. (2001). Telecommunications: Characteristics and choices of Internet users. GAO-01-345. http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d01345.pdf 

For more information, contact:

Meg Traci, Director  matraci@ruralinstitute.umt.edu
Montana Disability and Health Program
The University of Montana Rural Institute
52 Corbin Hall, Missoula, MT 59812-7056
888-268-2743 toll-free;
406-243-5467 Voice;
406-243-4200 TTY
406-243-2349 (fax)

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