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  • Rannveig Alette Skjerve and G. Anthony Giannoumis

The Digital Gender Divide, Universal Design, and Intersectionality

In ICT Discovery museum, ITU and the Mission of the United States in Geneva co-organized workshops for local school girls on satellites, coding, mobile apps, + video, together with the chance to meet expert role models. Photo Credit: ITU

The World Health Organization estimates that 15% of the world’s population experience long term disability, and the prevalence is higher among women than men. In other words, a significant proportion of the global population experience systematic oppression and substantial barriers accessing and using technology not only on the basis of gender, but at the intersection between gender and disability.

Recognizing these overlapping forms of discrimination means that efforts towards closing the Digital Gender Divide must take into account the accessible design of technology for women with disabilities. As part of these efforts, governments, industry, and academia must also consider the relationship between an individual’s access to technology, and the usability of technology for persons across the diversity spectrum. The effort in itself must be, in the words of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, universally designed.

If access is simply understood as access to a personal computer, interventions aimed at providing computer centers for women would fulfill that goal. However, a computer without screen reader may be inaccessible to a blind or partially sighted woman. While she has physical access to a computer, she will not have access to the computer’s functionalities.

Left: Rannveig A. Skjerve / Right: G. Anthony Giannoumis, Associate Professor of Universal Design of Information and Communication Technology of Oslo and Akerhus University College of Applied Sciences

The same applies to the universal design of technology. If accessibility is understood in relation to general forms of disability, a website, for example, would be accessible if it was usable by persons with disabilities. However, if the website does not consider human diversity, the web developers may introduce other barriers that prevent someone from using it. Therefore, at the intersection between disability and other systems of oppression, the website might be accessible for a person with a disability, but inaccessible for a woman with a disability.

Future research and policymaking must ensure that data is collected on the unique experiences of women with disabilities, and examines the barriers that are created at the intersection of different forms of discrimination such as racism, transphobia, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. In addition, we must explore how Universal Design principles can be applied in the practical design of new and innovative technologies. We must also provide richer perspectives in computing education by focusing on user’s cultural and social contexts. This includes presenting digital content in a rich and culturally-embedded way, rather than attempting to "sanitize" it, and framing technology use in innovative ways that invite more active and substantive participation. Finally, national and international governments must reform law and policy to incorporate an intersectional understanding of accessibility in technical guidelines, accessibility regulations, and anti-discrimination laws.

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