Article - Report on access to electronic commerce for older Australians and people with disabilities (May 2000)

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The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) is conducting one of the most fascinating research projects on Internet access in the world. In 1999 the Attorney-General asked the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to investigate the implications for older Australians and Australians with a disability of new technologies in electronic commerce and the provision of government and other services, and outline their needs in accessing services which use these technologies.

The final report has been submitted to Government and will be made public when it is tabled in parliament. However, a number of interim reports have been released which reveal the extent of access issues on the Internet, and the potential for legislative intervention at some stage to promote access.

Evidence obtained by HREOC during their consultation rounds indicated the size of the problem, and the Commission summarised their evidence to date in the following terms:

  • ‘Use of digital technology has great potential in providing more effective and economical access to government and business information and services for all Australians including older people and people with a disability; but that
  • physical barriers, affordability and equipment access barriers, and attitudinal and awareness barriers are preventing some Australians from having equally effective access to e-commerce and other services using new technologies; and that
  • at least until these barriers have been more adequately addressed, electronic and automated service and information facilities should continue to be used to supplement and add value to models offering human service rather than being seen as fully substituting for these.’

The Commission also suggests that many access issues are common between older Australians and people with disabilities, including accessibility of automatic teller machines, interactive voice response systems, and Internet based services.

This article summarises some of the HREOC research to date, and points to potential recommendations and their ramifications for the Internet.


The Commission’s research identified a number of Barriers and potential barriers to access:

  • The cost of access to computers and Internet connection;
  • Need for awareness, and training in use of, available options;
  • Inaccessibility of many web pages to people with vision impairments, slower connections and older equipment;
  • Inaccessibility of many automatic teller machines, EFTPOS facilities and similar devices to people with limited vision, manual dexterity, memory or who are using a wheelchair;
  • Difficulties in using interactive voice response systems (for bill payment and other services by phone) because of insufficient time provided for entry of information by the user, complexity of menus and lack of readily available recourse to human operator; and
  • Lack of provision, or delays in provision of materials in accessible formats (particularly in education) because of copyright or other legal difficulties.

Recommended solutions

While the Commission is keeping its final recommendations close to its chest, it has indicated that it received strong support in submission for a series of measures. These included:

  • Increased business and government support for community access points for online services and for awareness, education and training for people who might otherwise remain on the wrong side of a ‘digital divide’;
  • Specifically, increased provision (in particular by the Commonwealth) of superseded equipment through organisations such as Technical Aid to the Disabled and computer clubs for seniors;
  • Ensuring that on line and automated services complement and enhance rather than replacing existing services;
  • Wider implementation of the existing Australian Standard on interactive voice response systems;
  • Upgrading of accessibility of ATMs including replacement with newer generation machines offering improved blind and vision impaired access;
  • The Commonwealth and other information and service providers ensuring compliance of their web sites with the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines; and
  • Implementation of recent reforms to copyright law and the Commonwealth’s Electronic Transactions Bill and consideration of need for further reforms.

Issues identified by the Commission’s Issues Paper

The Commission released an Issues Paper in late 1999 which discussed different types of access barriers, and options and best practice in different types of solutions, including:

  • needs for additional information, explanation or human service beyond that currently provided by or in association with automated systems;
  • difficulty in using the vision, sound or touch input or output formats provided for use of technology or in information required for use of the technology;
  • needs for provision of education or training on use of technologies;
  • economic barriers to access to some technologies; and
  • legal impediments which may exist to use of digital technologies to promote equitable access to information or services in some settings.

The Commission’s Issues Paper discussed issues affecting equal access through a range of technologies, including:

  • world wide web and other Internet use;
  • telecommunications based services (including automated bill payment and information services); and
  • specific purpose devices such as Automatic Teller Machines, EFTPOS facilities or information kiosks.

The Issues Paper also discussed issues affecting equal access in a number of areas of information and services, including banking and financial services; other business services (such as retailing and travel services); government information and services and participation in government processes; and education.

Initiatives to extend access to new technologies

People with disabilities and older Australians alike have identified affordability and access to equipment as major barriers in gaining access to, familiarity with, and confidence in using, services through the Internet.

Submissions to HREOC generally welcomed and called for expansion of government initiatives, through programs such as the Commonwealth’s Networking the Nation grants program and Victoria’s SkillsNet, to provide community access points to Internet services through libraries and community organisations. A number of submissions and papers recommend more support by governments and business for community organisations providing access to equipment, training and on line services.

Submissions identified access to equipment as a barrier. The Commission indicate that possible solutions to the problems of availability of equipment could include:

  • encouraging service organisations and businesses to consider donating obsolescent computers to organisations representing people with disabilities;
  • encouraging organisations such as schools, libraries community centres etc, particularly those in rural or regional centres, to provide a community access point where people with disabilities and others who have limited access to information technology can access the Internet or any other computer technology without charge or for a very moderate charge;
  • involving people with disabilities, older people, carers and service providers in the design of these access points, so that they are fully accessible for people with a range of disabilities, for example providing good physical access and clear signage and instructions;
  • encouraging staff of the organisations hosting the access point, or volunteers, to provide assistance and advice to new users; and
  • the provision of occasional childcare by community organisations or volunteers, particularly in rural and regional centres where people have to travel long distances and so need to spend extended time on line to make the trip worthwhile.

An example of these types of initiatives is Technical Aid for the Disabled. Information on the model of provision of equipment and services through Technical Aid to the Disabled is available through the resources page for the reference ( This service appears to have the advantage of being able to address needs which some submission have emphasised for some users with disabilities to have adaptive software and/or equipment before they can use a computer effectively.

Technical Aid to the Disabled publishes lists of donors to its Computer Loan Scheme regularly in its journal. There appears to have been limited contribution from government departments and agencies to date. The Commission states that there is no fundamental barrier to donation of public resources if the agency responsible is satisfied that this represents appropriate value for the public resources involved.

This may occur if resources should properly be written off - which is likely to apply to many superseded computers which are capable of being restored by community organisations for useful service, but would cost more to dispose of commercially than they are worth to the Commonwealth. Computers that many Commonwealth departments and agencies may dispose of as superseded - high range 486s and lower range Pentiums - appear to be capable of performing an important role in providing at least introductory access to online services for older Australians and people with a disability.

The Commission make the interesting counterpoint that ‘an alternative path may be to consider provision of equipment for community access not because computers are redundant to public purposes, but explicitly as a means of achieving them’.

The Commission points to research[1] on the economics of the Internet which suggests that even competitive markets will provide less access to networks with positive externalities for increased participation levels than is economically optimal. Even before any additional value is considered for equity or social participation for its own sake, this is one of the reasons accepted by economists for government intervention to provide services.

Available models of government intervention include direct provision or funding of services, but are not restricted to these. A long established model of partnership between government, business and community organisations for social goals and redressing disadvantage is through the tax system conferring deductible status on donations in cash or kind to socially beneficial projects.

Education, awareness and training

Submissions to the Commission placed great emphasis on the need for education and training in addition to measures to ensure access to equipment.

The submission from the Department of Family and Community Services, for example, noted that options for addressing education and training barriers for people with disabilities and carers might include:

  • involving staff of service organisations or volunteers in providing introductory sessions at community access points;
  • encouraging disability services and consumer organisations to seek to establish a core of volunteers with technical expertise and/or experience in working with people with disabilities to assist in training staff and consumers in using information technology;
  • training volunteers to assist people in their own homes, if required;
  • encouraging cooperation between disability service and consumer groups and organisations to develop training packages suitable for the use both of people with disabilities and older people; and
  • encouraging service organisations and volunteers to become familiar with available adaptive technology.

Indirect access and alternatives to automated and on line services

Government and some industry sectors have expressed commitment to maintaining more traditional channels of delivery of information and services alongside electronic options. The Commission’s Issues Paper noted the Prime Minister’s Investing for Growth statement which, while committing the Commonwealth to delivery of all appropriate services on line by 2001, indicated that this should complement and enhance rather than replacing existing services.

Submissions to the Commission emphasised the importance of such a commitment, although they note that it is ‘fair to say’ that some submissions questioned whether this goal is being effectively met at present in all cases by governments and businesses.

The Government Information Centre pilot program, referred to among initiatives listed in the Commission’s Issues Paper, was regarded in submissions as a very positive step which ought to be expanded. This program is intended to provide members of the public with a human contact point, who then uses digital data to negotiate a way to the information or services required without the user necessarily having to master all the technologies used or the structure of the government organisations and resources involved.

Use of electronic technology including web based data to enable staff to provide services to customers more conveniently, effectively and conveniently may not have the profile currently attained by direct provision of services on line. At least pending more widespread accessibility of and familiarity with self service models, however, this and similar intermediate models of delivery of information and services could perform an important part in delivering the stated goals of government and some industry sectors of using digital technology to enhance service and accessibility rather than only to reduce costs.

Accessibility of technologies used

For many people with a disability, and for some older people, the major issue is seen less as one of lack of their own awareness of e-commerce and other service, than a frequent lack of awareness of community access needs in designing and implementing services and technologies.

Problems of accessibility of equipment and of information formats have been identified across most electronic commerce and service technologies. They are well captured in individual comments published in the Commission’s summary report of focus group discussions. Useful findings have been more quickly achievable regarding web page accessibility than other technologies:

A reasonable ‘first cut’ at checking accessibility of web sites is achievable quickly and at virtually no cost (at least for organisations having access to up to date computers and Internet connections), using the ‘Bobby’ automated checking program.

In the web accessibility area there are fairly comprehensive, freely available and reasonably widely accepted (though less widely implemented) standards to refer to : the World Wide Web Consortium’s guidelines for web sites generally, and for Commonwealth Government sites Ausinfo’s guidelines which reference the World Wide Web Consortium’s guidelines and the Commission’s advisory notes.

Working paper on web page accessibility

As part of this reference the Attorney-General asked the Commission to conduct an audit of the accessibility of Australian government and business Internet sites, in particular for people with impaired vision, by reference to the Disability Discrimination Act and relevant Australian and international guidelines.

A working paper discussing results of a preliminary audit focusing on Commonwealth web pages is available at:

The summary results from this preliminary survey are that :

  • Most Commonwealth sites tested showed significant accessibility barriers;
  • Many sites present barriers to users who cannot see images, cannot access documents in PDF format, or have difficulty with sites using frames;
  • A substantial number of sites appear to require excessive download times even at the home page level;
  • Most barriers found appear relatively easy for providers to remedy on existing pages and to avoid for new pages;
  • Some sites appear to have dealt effectively with accessibility issues as well as long download times by implementing text only equivalent sites; and
  • These results show a need for agencies to conduct simple testing of their own sites at a minimum, and indicate a need for consideration of more detailed usability testing and quality assurance measures .

Legal issues

The Commission’s Issues Paper asked for comment on legal barriers to reproduction or distribution of material in accessible formats, and in particular on the impact of recent and current reforms to copyright law and through legislation on electronic transactions.

Regarding copyright issues, submissions:

  • congratulate the Federal Government on the 1998 amendments to the Copyright Act which streamline the copyright clearance procedures for published works reproduced in accessible formats; and
  • welcome the introduction into Federal Parliament of amending legislation which would extends the Copyright Act to include electronic formats under the statutory licensing provisions for reproduction of published works in accessible formats for people with print disabilities; while
  • calling for examination of further simplification of the Copyright Act provisions for reproduction of published works in accessible formats, or other reforms to ensure that material can be produced in accessible formats as and when required .

Submissions in the education area express concern regarding current time delays involved in working through copyright issues, and arranging for reproduction of materials in an alternative format, which place students with a disability at a disadvantage.

The Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind notes that transcription into audio or Braille of an average 200-page book currently takes six to eight weeks, and suggests that to reduce delays publishers should lodge electronic files of their publications with a central agency or agencies, with appropriate controls on eligibility for access.

Focus group discussions

A series of focus group discussions involving older people and people with a disability was conducted at the commencement of this process, as a means of testing and supplementing the information available through other research and submissions. Some quotes from the focus groups appear below (see box)

Focus group discussions indicate that physical barriers, affordability and equipment access barriers, and attitudinal and awareness barriers prevent some older Australians from accessing e-commerce. Where these barriers are overcome users see electronic banking in particular as cheaper, faster and easier.

Perceptions of problems of security, of personal safety using ATMs and of personal information using Internet services were also raised.

Focus group discussions with people with disabilities did not indicate the same problems of awareness of electronic commerce options. The groups were extremely knowledgeable about e-commerce options and could talk at length about transacting business over the net, ATMs, EFTPOS, smart cards, ticketing machines, barcode scanning in supermarkets and libraries, e-tickets and voice technologies. However, accessibility of equipment and of information formats across most electronic commerce technologies, and affordability and equipment access barriers were problems for these groups.

The Commission argues that a major point arising from focus group discussions, as well as from research and submissions they have received, is that many access issues are in fact, and need to be addressed as, universal access issues rather than issues to be approached (or overlooked) only as minority issues.

Submissions to the Commission noted that the Australian community as it really exists is not composed even mainly of urban upper income people who have access to and are familiar with up to date technology, are aged 18 to 40, and will never age, and have perfect eyesight, hearing, mobility, and memory, and will never experience any disability affecting any of these, and have high level analytical and English literacy and language skills. The Commission therefore concludes that, while it has been instructed to examine issues from the perspective of older persons and persons with a disability, the inquiry has much wider ramifications.

Further details about this inquiry are available at:

Quotes from submissions and focus groups:

‘[The technology’s] very important. It enables people to live independent lives in the community. We want to be independent. We want to be seen to be independent. When it works it’s liberating.’

‘Older people are at risk of being excluded from the choice of participating in this vision. Largely because they are out of decision making loop and increasingly are not represented in workplaces where mostly young technically literate people are becoming familiarised with technology as an integral part of their vocational training and career development. ... Without strategic intervention, a low level of computer literacy and the social effects of groupings into the information poor and the information rich is likely to compound negative stereotypes of older people held by the young who in turn are further re-inforcing their advantage through the encapsulation of their values and assumptions in technology itself. The rapid disenfranchisement of hearing impaired people by IVR and telephony queuing and menuing systems is an example.’

‘No matter what governments and providers of on-line and e-commerce services do, it is inevitable that some people will not be able to access these services. To ensure that people are not deprived of critical information or vital services, there must always be alternative methods of accessing the service or information that are readily available and clearly advertised.’

‘Contrary to popular belief, seniors do embrace new technologies. ... Cost is still a barrier to take-up of technology even though PCs are getting cheaper. Poor after-sales service plus service and repair costs are real disincentives. Most older Australians are on a low income and receive a full or part age pension (81% of women and 65% of men over 65). There must be access for those who cannot afford home based PCs and online charges.’

‘Many older Australians and people with a disability find it hard to afford to buy a computer. New Computer Clubs for Seniors also have difficulty affording the necessary hardware to set up their club. Some Government Departments and corporate organisations dump their old computers’.

‘If governments (or non-government organisations for that matter) plan to deliver most services via the Internet they must provide training in the middle and older generations to embrace this technology.’

‘... the government’s obvious and cheapest solution to change the computer shy to the computer confident is to utilise existing non-workplace oriented voluntary organisations such as Australian Senior’s Computer Clubs Association and the University of the Third Age. For minimal administrative and equipment input funding a nationwide training program could be simply and quickly setup and made to function. This form of peer helping peer is the only friendly solution.’

‘A major issue for people who are unfamiliar with technology is the provision of opportunities to learn about the technology. Therefore, access to computers and other technology is required in areas that older Australians or people with disabilities can get to, where they feel supported and comfortable, and where they have others around them to ask for assistance - such as local government facilities, senior citizens clubs, or support organisations for people with disabilities, accommodation sites or centres for older Australians or people with disabilities. Government surplus computers and related devices would make it cheaper to set up access points in these places.’

‘Quite simply, we build disability into technology.’

Chris Connolly

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[1] N. Economides, The Economics of Networks, International Journal of Industrial Organisation, October 1996; available on line at <>.