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Rates of Computer and Internet Use: A Comparison of Urban and Rural Access by People with Disabilities

Updated August 2006

Information tools, such as the personal computer and the Internet, are increasingly critical to economic success and personal advancement (NTIA, 1999). These new technologies have tremendous potential to broaden the lives and increase the independence of people with disabilities (Kaye, 2000). 

How the Internet is Improving the Lives of Americans with Disabilities: Harris Poll #30 (June, 2000), concluded that adults with disabilities who use the Internet feel better informed and more connected to the world around them, and interact with others who have similar interests and experiences. Commissioned by the National Organization on Disabilities, the survey reported that respondents derived significantly greater positive impact from the Internet than adult Internet-users without disabilities. Despite these benefits, only about 25% of Americans with disabilities own a computer and about 10% are online, compared with 50% computer ownership, and 40% online use in households with no disability.

While the number of individuals with access to information tools is increasing, some Americans are being left behind. Minorities, low-income persons, the less-educated, and children of single-parent households, particularly those who live in rural areas and central cities, are among the groups that lack access to information resources. (NTIA, 1995, 1998, 1999). The “digital divide” — the divide between those with access to new technologies and those without — based on disability status is just as large as that based on race and ethnicity (Kaye, 2000).

Location plays an important role in the digital divide. Just as other people in their neighborhoods, people with disabilities in rural areas and central cities are less likely to own computers and to be online than their suburban peers. Regardless of income level, Americans in rural areas are lagging behind in Internet access. It comes as no surprise then that the lowest numbers for Internet use (6.8%) are for rural people with disabilities.

Table 1. Computer Use and Internet Usage by Location
Description of Table 1

The U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey categories include “metropolitan” (i.e. urban) and “non-metropolitan” (i.e. rural). The metropolitan category is further differentiated into “city” (central city) and “suburb” categories. Across these settings, there is a large and statistically significant difference between people (aged 15 and over), with and without work disabilities, in individual computer ownership and Internet usage.

Percent of Households with a Computer            Percent of Individuals Who Use the Internet Anywhere
With no disability    With a disability                    With no disability    With a disability

Metropolitan 53.5        25.0                                   Metropolitan   39.3         10.9
Suburban      57.5        28.7                                   Suburban        41.9         11.6
Central City   47.4       19.9                                    Central City    36.4           8.8
Rural              44.5       19.8                                    Rural                33.1          6.8
Combined     51.7       23.9                                    Combined       38.1          9.9

Source: H.S. Kaye. Unpublished data, derived from Computer and Internet use among people with disabilities. Disabilities Statistics Report (13), March 2000.

If computers and the Internet have such utility for people with disabilities, why don’t more people with disabilities (particularly in rural and central city areas) purchase computers and use Internet services? It may be because computer ownership and Internet usage in the general population are linked to two important attributes: educational attainment and household income.

Twenty-two percent of adults with disabilities have not completed high school, compared with 9% of adults without disabilities. Only 32% of working-age individuals with disabilities are employed full or part-time, compared to 81% of those without disabilities (N.O.D./Harris Survey, 2000).

Slightly more than half of people with work disabilities (50.3%) have an annual household income of $20,000 or less. Only 22.2% of U.S. households with an annual income of less than $20,000 own a computer and 19% use the Internet. In that income category, even fewer people with disabilities own computers (11%) and are online  (4.9%). (Kaye, 2000). As income rises in the general population, so does computer ownership and Internet usage. Of households with incomes of more than $75,000, the percentage of computer ownership increases to 80.8% (urban) and 76.5% (rural).  Internet usage rises to 62% for urban households and 53.7% for rural households (NTIA, 2000). Little is known about people with disabilities in this income category, due to current categorical definitions of disability. By observation and anecdote, this group of highly-paid individuals with disabilities has many of the characteristics of their economic peers and is likely to have equally high Internet use.

Table 2. Computer ownership and Internet use, by disability status, gender, employment status, educational attainment, and family income, ages 15 and over:
Description of Table 2

                              With Work Disability                                                  Without Work Disability

Total Population
# (1000s)

Computer in Household # (1000s)

% Uses Internet #(1000s) % Total Population # (1000s) Computer in Household # (1000s) % Uses Internet
Male 9,587 2,383 24.9+ 1,056 11.0+ 92,105 49,040 53.2 36,942 40.1
Female 11,289 2,600 23.0+ 1,020   9.0+ 97,849 49,227 50.3 35,358 36.1
Employment Status (ages 18-64 only)
Employed 3,351 1,427 42.6+ 885 26.4+ 124,001 70,547 56.9 54.621 44.0
Not Employed 9,024 2,608 28.9+ 970 10.8+ 29,445 13,786 46.8 8,914 30.3
Educational Attainment
Not H.S. grad 7,461 949 12.7+ 179 * 2.4*+ 37,520 12,949 34.5 8,457 22.5
H.S. grad 11,418 3,105 27.2+ 1,294 11.3+ 108,779 53,267 49.0 35,957 33.1
College grad 1,998 929 46.5+ 604 30.2+ 43,655 32,051 73.4 27,885 63.9
Family Income
<$20,000 8,614 950 11.0+ 424   4.9+ 28,557 6,326 22.2 5,419 19.0
$20,000+ 8,512 3,403 40.0+ 1,417 16.6+ 132,451 81,042 61.2 59,916 45.2

Source: Current Population Survey, 1998 Computer and Internet Use Supplement and 1999 Annual Demographic Supplement.
+Difference in rates between households with & without work disability is statistically significant at 95% confidence level or better.
* Estimate has low statistical reliability (standard error exceeds 30 % of estimate).

Table adapted from Disability Statistics Report 13: Computer and Internet Use among People with Disabilities, 3/2000.

Ensuring Access and Usability

Although prices continue to fall, computers and Internet services are still unattainable luxuries for many Americans — especially those with disabilities. A greater proportion (23%) of the population in non-metropolitan counties reports having a disability than in metropolitan counties (18.44%) (McNeil, 1993). For many of them, rural America’s lack of basic access to technology and services compounds issues of education and income.

There will be no quick and easy solutions to the problems all rural Americans face in securing an education, finding employment and earning enough income to provide themselves and their families with a quality of life most others take for granted. Adding disability to the mix enhances the magnitude of those problems. Even educated,  employed rural residents with adequate income encounter difficulties with purchasing computer equipment, finding technical support and training, connecting with an Internet service provider, and paying for services which may be more expensive than those in more populated areas.

Access to information is increasingly critical to finding a job, taking online courses, contacting colleagues, and finding resources. One approach to bridging the digital divide between the information “haves” and “have nots” is to increase the number of community computer/Internet access centers in schools, libraries and other public areas. For people with disabilities, however, these community technology access centers, databases at one-stop employment centers, shopping mall information kiosks and government offices, must be both accessible and usable if we are to avoid creating additional personal digital divides.

Like other rural community members, rural residents with disabilities must be able to travel to access centers, enter and navigate the buildings, use the restrooms, receive appropriate training, and manipulate the equipment and software (e.g. an individual with low vision may need larger print on the monitor screen or a screen reader with voice output to read a display monitor; an individual without hands can use speech input software as a keyboarding alternative).

People with disabilities may be inadvertently excluded from rural community life unless telecommunications access — economic, social, and physical — is addressed and ensured locally. New telecommunications policies are committed to the inclusion of people with disabilities. However, policy alone cannot ensure equitable access. Grassroots understanding is needed to define access in telecommunications, and determine how access can inform development activities.

In the end, some of the problems that prevent rural Americans with disabilities from sharing in the benefits of the Information Age — isolation, unemployment, lack of education, and low incomes — may be the very problems that are solved when they begin to share in the Information Age.


Disability Statistics Center, University of California-San Francisco, Box 0646, Laurel Heights, 3333 California St., San Francisco, CA 94143-0646; distats@itsa.ucsf.edu  (415) 502-5210 

Digital Divide Web Site:  http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/dn/index.html , National Telecommunications and Information Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, 1401 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20230 (202) 482-7002; digitaldivide@ntia.doc.gov


Enders, A. & Seekins, T. (10/99). Telecommunications access for rural Americans with disabilities. Rural Development Perspectives, 2, 1, 61-70.

Kaye, H. S. (3/2000). Computer and Internet use among people with disabilities.  Disabilities Statistics Report (13). Washington, DC: Department of Education, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

McNeil, J. M. (1993). Americans with disabilities: 1991-92. (U.S. Bureau of the Census,  Current Population Reports, P70-73). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/disability.html

National Organization on Disability & L. Harris & Associates (2000). Survey of Americans with Disabilities. Washington, DC: National Organization on Disability. http://www.nod.org

National Telecommunications & Information Administration. (7/95). Falling through the net: A survey of the “have nots” in rural and urban America. Washington, DC: U.S.  Department of Commerce. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fallingthru.html

National Telecommunications & Information Administration. (7/98). Falling through the net: New data on the digital divide. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/net2/

National Telecommunications & Information Administration. (7/99). Falling through the net: Defining the digital divide (a report on the telecommunications and information technology gap in America). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/digitaldivide

Stoddard, S., Jans, L., Ripple, J. & Kraus, L. (1998). Chartbook on work and disability in the United States. An InfoUse Report. Washington, DC: U.S. National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.  http://www.infouse.com/disabilitydata/workdisability/

Taylor, H. (6/2000). The Harris Poll #30: How the Internet is improving the lives of Americans with disabilities.. National Organization on Disability: Washington, DC. http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp

U.S. Census Bureau (1999). Comparison of summary measures of income by selected characteristics: 1989, 1997 & 1998 (Households & people as of March of the following year).   http://www.census.gov/hhes/income/income99/99tablea.html

U.S. Census Bureau (3/99). Disability selected characteristics of persons 16 to 74: 1999. http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/disable/cps/cps399.html

U.S. Census Bureau (1999). Educational attainment of persons 18 years old and over, by metropolitan and nonmetropolitan residence, age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin: March 1998.http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/education/p20-476.html

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)

Opinions expressed are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of the funding agencies.
This report is available in Braille, large print and text formats on request.