Disability & the Digital Divide
Recognition of a “digital divide,” especially among racialized population groups, has long been part of the debate about informatics, even for those focused on labor and employment. Yet unequal access to IT on the part of disabled people and their concomitant social exclusion from digital networks has largely been neglected. As online labor markets expand and flourish, generating precarious livelihoods for all contenders, will these barriers be reinforced or is there a silver lining for disabled people in the reduced physical requirements for workforce participation in the New Economy?
Is digital labor more accessible to disabled people than other forms of labor? If so, does it hold any promise of improving the socio-economic status of disabled people, or will the new economy continue to funnel disabled people into poverty and secondary labor markets characterized by part time work, subsistence pay, low skill requirements, and few opportunities for advancement? Given the propensity of digital capitalism to seek out and harness new kinds of free, or marginal labor, are disabled people at risk of becoming one of those hitherto untapped sources of work input and extractive profit? If so, how should the disability movement respond?
This presentation will take the form of a conversation between labor scholar Andrew Ross and disability studies scholar Sunaura Taylor. It will address the foregoing questions against the backdrop of the given wisdom about the workforce role (or non-role) of the disabled.
For example, disabled people have long been considered the antithesis of workers. The notion that disabled people don’t work is firmly embedded in the American public imagination, and it is backed by the history of labor legislation. Statistical support for this view is solid. The unemployment rate for disabled people around the world is staggering: In developing countries, 80% to 90% of persons with disabilities of working age are unemployed, whereas in industrialized countries the figure is between 50% and 70%. Even at its peak in recent years, only 37% of working-age persons with disabilities in the United States were employed, and some evidence suggests that workforce participation is declining.
The larger framework of this discussion is that capitalist work has always been the primary producer of disability itself. Physical and mental damage directly generated from industrial toil, or, indirectly, from environmental contamination, is a major by-product of capitalist labor systems. This pattern continues today in all sectors of the digital economy. The rate of injury in semiconductor production is several times greater than in other industrial workplaces, while the toxic footprint of fabs creates harms wherever they are located. The e-waste stream is a transnational river of environmental hazards, especially at the endpoints of product disassembly. User interface is also a source of chronic occupational disability—carpal tunnel syndrome, computer vision syndrome, and a host of other musculoskeletal disorders.