Exploring the digital space for young people with disabilities

Children are often spoken about in a way that treats them as a single, homogenous group, particularly in relation to the digital world. In reality, every child is different, and children belong to many different and multiple identity groups. A child’s experience of the digital world is mediated by their unique characteristics. This is particularly true of children with disabilities, for who the digital world presents both huge opportunities and challenges. This International Day of Persons with Disabilities, 5Rights Foundation celebrates the progress, inclusion, and accessibility that the digital world offers to children with disabilities and special education needs (SEN).  

The digital world offers vital spaces where children’s experiences can be accessible and inclusive. Digital services can be lifelines for children with disabilities, offering them a way to participate, engage, learn and play at the pace they choose. We see this in the popularity of virtual forums and support groups, online gaming and disability rights activism among young people with disabilities and SEN.  

For children who require mobility support, digital location imaging can help them find out if an area is wheelchair accessible, Google Maps, for example, collates wheelchair accessibility information for more than 15 million places globally. This is one of many examples where the digital world can provide assistance for children with disabilities that have a tangible benefit on their life experiences. Other features of digital design, such as voice, chat, translation, and video functions can also offer flexibility and alternatives to children with different needs.  

Since September 2018, robust accessibility regulations and guidelines have been embedded into the design and development of public sector digital services, including mobile apps. These guidelines build on existing obligations under the Equality Act 2010 to consider ‘reasonable adjustments’ for people with disabilities. The progress made in the accessibility field of the public sector is a beacon of hope for the digital inclusion and safeguarding of children with disabilities and SEN. 5Rights hopes to see this movement grow to encompass consideration of all children, and the unique risks they may face, at the design stage of the digital world.  

There have been recent developments in digital accessibility that deserve celebration, for example, TikTok’s announcement of a new feature to help users with photosensitive epilepsy to identify and automatically skip videos that can trigger seizures. However, the risks to children with disabilities and SEN reinforce the need for the digital world to remain a positive and accessible tool for children to experience friendship, gaming, learning, and participation in an environment that anticipates and mitigates risks. 

Despite this progress, children with disabilities and SEN face challenges in the digital world. Research shows children with disabilities and SEN are more vulnerable to risks, for example, children with SEN report being bullied 12% more online than their non-disabled peers and may be more susceptible to the pressures of financial exploitation, particularly on social media. The risks to children with disabilities and SEN also include higher exposure to harmful content such as pro-anorexia, self-harm and suicide content, where parents of a child with SEN report seeing three times as many (35% vs. 11%) behaviour or content online that bothered or upset their child in 2019 compared to parents with non-SEN children.  

It is no surprise then, that parents of children with SEN are also twice as likely to worry about their child’s privacy online than parents of non-SEN children. Research from Internet Matters supports the hypothesis that children with disabilities may be more susceptible to privacy risks, where one third of children with physical disabilities had experienced their social media account being hacked. Misinformation may also be harmful for children with disabilities, where, for example, the circulation of dangerous miracle cures for autism have a significant impact on their self-esteem, health, and wellbeing.  

The shift to remote learning has created a number of risks for children. Despite the Department for Education’s assurances that content-filtering’ software in Government-funded laptops will prevent exposure to harmful content, children have been left vulnerable to conduct (e.g., bullying, misinformation), contact (e.g., hacking), and commercial (e.g., economic exploitation) risks. Remote learning is a further challenge for children with disabilities and SEN, with many remote learning programs failing to factor in access needs. Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman has highlighted that school closures have been particularly devastating for children with disabilities and SEN, especially in the absence of statutory remote speech and language support services.  

5Rights is among many organisations that has persistently called for the government’s long-awaited Online Harms Bill to address the need for digital service providers to mitigate known harms, unintended consequences, and emerging risks to children that their services present, so that children, including those with disabilities and special education needs, can continue to experience the digital world for all the benefits that it offers.  

The significant role the digital world plays in the lives of children with disabilities and special education needs must be recognised to uphold their rights, including their rights to participation, education, privacy, and protection from economic exploitation. It won’t be enough to uphold the right of children with disabilities to ‘enjoy a full and decent life… and facilitate the child’s active participation in the community’ if issues of education, privacy, wellbeing, and economic exploitation are not assessed and mitigated. Where this was important before, in a time where remote learning, lockdown, and social distancing are the norm, this is now urgent. All of us have a collective responsibility to build the digital world that young people deserve.