Digital Inclusion

Members of marginalized groups and persons with disabilities often find technology difficult or even dangerous to use. NDI has designed DemTools with these needs in mind - while continuing to work with our partners to actively ensure our products are inclusive and accessible.

“Accessible design is a process which ensures that everyone—including those with visual, auditory, physical, speech, neurological and cognitive disabilities—can use technology.”

Man in wheelchair

Powerful web-based applications like DemTools create new ways for political groups to organize for social change, but they can also perpetuate societal inequalities—or create new ones. Political engagement online is often controlled by the same individuals with power offline, and the ability to use technology is often limited by existing social, economic, and political barriers. It is important to take into account the intersecting identities of members of marginalized groups - including gender, sexual orientation, race, class, disability and more - to build a robust understanding of the exclusion they face. Women are often subject to unique challenges because of their gender. They are less likely to own mobile phones or have access to the internet, particularly in low-income countries where cost is a key barrier. Women and girls are also subject to harmful socio-cultural norms that limit their access to training, decrease their confidence in using technology or convey that technology is for men. While online platforms are a space for citizens to voice their opinions - and can be particularly important in helping women become politically active – they are also a forum for disinformation, hate speech, abuse, and harassment. Online violence represents a direct barrier to women’s free speech, undermining democracy in all its key elements, and has a chilling effect on the ambitions of women.

Certain marginalized groups find the internet a welcoming alternative to physical gatherings, but they face other threats that make using online platforms like DemTools dangerous. For example, in repressive societies where homosexuality is punishable by law, ensuring that online communications are secure and safe from surveillance is critical (more information is available in the DemTools Digital Security overview). Low internet penetration, limited literacy, and a lack of local language translations often lock large numbers of citizens out of online tools. To address these issues, NDI works with open-source communities to internationalize the language of their applications, localize into common languages, and minimize the bandwidth requirements to make apps as easy to run on limited internet connections as possible.

Focusing on accessibility in software design is a process that also ensures that everyone with visual, auditory, physical, speech, neurological, and cognitive disabilities can take advantage of powerful online tools. However, these steps are often seen as optional extras when it comes to technology development, particularly with volunteer open-source software communities. There are a range of accommodations in design that ease the use of web applications that NDI has prioritized in DemTools. Some examples include ensuring that text is large enough to read, with options for font magnification; creating detailed descriptions for buttons and links; including alternative text for images, particularly for screen readers; and ensuring color vision isn’t required for comprehension of text, graphics, or images. NDI is experimenting with new ways to connect with information online through voice access systems for products like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.

Work on accessibility is never complete and always evolving. As NDI continues to support democracy and rights activists around the world, we will work together with open-source communities and marginalized groups to design and fund improvements to these powerful tools to expand the reach.

Inclusion Helps Everyone

Designing for persons with disabilities or at-risk populations doesn’t only help marginalized communities - it can assist others, too. Anyone at times can face short-term disabilities or temporary physical challenges, from misplaced eyeglasses to broken fingers to holding a baby with one arm. Everyone benefits from thoughtfully designed technology built with inclusion considered from the start.

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