There is no denying that continued advancements within healthcare technology like virtual telehealth, wearable devices, and online health portals have brought a great deal more convenience, time savings, data collection opportunities, and options for patients.
However, while these benefits have been wonderful for the majority of patients, the truth is that they have also contributed to the widening gap between those who have both access and the ability to use these new technologies and those who don’t.
Digital Inequality and Accessibility on the Internet
The term “digital inequality” refers to the digital divide that exists between those who have access to technologies and those who don’t. The “don’t” column in this case also includes people who may not be able to use these new technologies.
With more and more health services becoming digital, this inequality has exacerbated the divide between those who get healthcare and those who don’t. The reasons for this divide are usually socio-economic and geographical. People without a reliable internet connection are being left behind during this new era of technology. The same can be said about older generations, who are less likely to understand how to log into telehealth appointments or know how to navigate web portals.
As for those with disabilities, the new technological shift we have seen in the healthcare industry has made healthcare more accessible. For those with mobility issues, telehealth appointments and the ability to access medical information online have been game changers from the comfort of their homes.
However, the disability community is far more than just those with mobility issues. In fact, one in four adults in the US are living with a disability. This includes those that are deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind, epileptic, and having cognitive disabilities — there are so many different things that can impact someone’s ability to use the internet. And unfortunately, less than 3% of the Internet meets WCAG accessibility guidelines.
An inaccessible healthcare site may make it impossible to make an appointment or request a prescription refill. And without proper accommodations, video-based telehealth services remain inaccessible to many with sensory-related or intellectual disabilities.
Inaccessibility extending beyond the internet and into the real world
As healthcare technologies have begun reshaping doctor’s offices, we have also seen more and more roadblocks for people with disabilities that didn’t exist prior. This has essentially undone decades of momentum in making public spaces and healthcare offices accessible and barrier free since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
For example, medical offices now commonly use healthcare kiosks and tablets for patients to complete the sign-in process. This is great for eliminating physical paperwork and bad handwriting, but if the technology is not designed with accessibility in mind, people with low vision or who are blind can be blocked from reading and filling out needed information.
As a high-level quadriplegic paralyzed below my shoulders and a power wheelchair user, I face technology barriers every time I have healthcare interactions. Kiosks are often positioned in a way that makes them unable for me to see from my wheelchair. At the dentist office, I struggle with the x-ray equipment not being designed to work with someone that is in a sitting position and cannot stand. I also rarely have the option to be weighed or to be transferred to a medical exam table for a full body check.
Modern technology was supposed to help bridge the gap between the people with and without disabilities, but it is often having the opposite effect.
How we can start fixing these issues
Well, the first step is for these companies to do the bare minimum — follow the laws that are already in place. Healthcare website providers often ignore even the basic compliance rules laid out in the Affordable Care Act and the ADA.
AI presents an opportunity to help bridge the gap between lack of accessibility and accessibility. Making an accessible website can require allocating a great number of resources and time. To achieve global inclusion, there are solutions for native and integrated accessibility alongside platforms and initiatives to educate society about people with disabilities. These solutions make it much less complex to work towards making digital assets accessible for everyone.
It is also important for healthcare technology companies to keep people with disabilities in mind before and during website development, and a great way to do this is work with them during that development process.
Quality Assurance (QA) testing is an important part of launching any technology, but the run-of-the-mill QA tester isn’t going to understand the choke points that different types of people with disabilities that you are going to run into. Involving people with various disabilities to test your website, app, mobile version, and technology is a much better way to ensure your content is accessible.
As for existing website owners, a good place to start is running a simple scan to easily find out where their websites are doing great on accessibility to get a better understanding and see where they are falling short.
Once you have that, you can begin the process of seeing what you can do about the issues you may have — whether that’s through integrated or native accessibility paths.
These are not suggestions, and they need to be implemented, even if companies don’t believe that their audiences include people with disabilities (they are probably wrong about that, by the way).
Regardless of where companies are in this process, it needs to be done. People with disabilities cannot be blocked from getting the care they need. And the longer these companies wait, the harder it will be to fix the mess that has been created.
Josh Basile, C4-5 Quadriplegic, Trial Attorney, Disability Rights Advocate, Community Relations Manager at accessiBe.