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Using Partnerships to Bridge the Digital Divide within the Disability Community


Macedonian Translation


Polish Translation

by Taylor Kearns


Greetings! My name is Taylor Kearns and I would like to comment on this paper before you read it. I wrote this article for two reasons. The first reason is to get you thinking about potential partnerships at a local, national, or global level or to think about how to make your current partnerships more effective. The second reason is that I feel that Informational Technology and the Internet are powerful agents of social change and must be accessible to all people, regardless of SES, location, or disability. I don’t claim to be an “expert” on the Digital Divide or Partnerships. What I do know is that there are too many issues involved for one organization or person to effectively comprehend. It is my humble opinion that we as individuals and organizations need to work collectively, not separately. Partnerships bring together the people and resources that are capable of addressing complex societal issues such as the Digital Divide.

With this paper, I simply wanted to get people thinking about the power of partnerships within the contexts of our projects and organizations, and to actively seek out others with a stake in this issue. Simply speaking, we must be proactive in our networking efforts. I welcome and expect feedback on this piece and welcome suggestions for further articles. I want to be apart of this initiative and look forward to observing the continuous evolution of technology and the impact it has on individuals and societies. Thank you and enjoy your work!

Taylor Kearns




Table of Contents


What is the Situation?

What is a Partnership

How can Partnerships help Bridge the Digital Divide in the Disability Community?

Conclusions and Implications





The manner in which the Internet and Informational Technology (IT) has altered our capacity to provide services and information, connect people, and facilitate change is almost too complex for anyone to fully grasp. Business. Culture. Law. Education. Government. These are examples of societal institutions that have struggled to adapt to the complexities of the Internet and IT as they form strategies/practices that meet their institutional objectives. Even more incomprehensible is envisioning the impact future technological developments will have on our global society and our individual lives. But for those who cannot effectively use these technological developments face segregation from arguably one of the most revolutionary informational tools in history. The “Digital Divide” is an obstacle that looks to segregate many groups of people from these technological developments simply due to their socio-economic status (SES), their geographic location, their education level, or because they have a disabling condition that is physical, sensory, or cognitive/psychological in nature (note: I believe in labeling conditions, not people). Not having the ability to effectively use these technologies can affect people’s ability to learn, compete in the labor market, communicate with others, and/or function within their living environment. These are serious issues that need a serious and sustained joint effort by our institutional leaders.

What is the “Digital Divide”? Specifically, the Digital Divide Network  (http://www.digitaldividenetwork.org ) refers to the Digital Divide as a “gap between those who can effectively use new information and communication tools, such as the Internet, and those who cannot”. It is debatable how large and socially significant this gap is, but it cannot be denied that it is there. In order to resolve the issue of making the Internet and Informational Technology effectively useful for people with disabilities, we as individuals, businesses, organizations, communities, governing bodies, and as a global society need to identify the resources and practices that will help span the Digital Divide. Partnerships are capable of bringing together the individuals and institutional leaders with the purpose of addressing the complexities of the Digital Divide.

The purpose of this paper is to raise awareness about using partnerships in helping bridge the Digital Divide for people with disabilities. It is also the purpose of this paper to frame inner thoughts or public discussions identifying the stakeholders that have a common interest, see a common need, and have common goals in addressing the Digital Divide.

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What is the Situation?

Access to the Internet, computers, and various technologies are important to people and organizations who choose to participate in our world’s cultural, economic, political, and social arenas. Our ability to achieve personal educational, vocational, and lifestyle goals is increasingly going to be impacted by technological innovations and the manner in which we use them. This is especially true for people with disabilities, as technology represents a powerful tool that enables them to overcome many societal barriers that confront them on an every day basis due to their condition(s). A few examples of these barriers include:


Communication difficulties

History of segregation

Inaccessible buildings and grounds

Negative stereotypes and generalizations

Inadequate transportation options

Lack of effective services and supports

Unfortunately, using technology often presents people with disabilities with additional barriers that affect a person’s ability to effectively use technology. Examples of these barriers include:


Access to basic equipment: This would include hardware, software, and a “connection” to the Web.

Access to adaptive equipment: This would include screen readers and magnifiers, alternate keyboards and switches, alternate pointing devices, voice recognition devices, and other devices that enable people to use the Web.

Economic/Financial: Involves the inability to pay for basic and adaptive equipment, Web connection, training and/or supports because of high cost of equipment and/or low income due to employment status.

Training: A lack of training options that educate those who are not familiar or comfortable accessing the Web. Also, some computer training classes are not set up to accommodate the individual needs of students that have disabilities.

Attitudes: This occurs by not addressing the needs of people with disabilities because others feel they are not in need of accessing the Web. It also can occur when people with disabilities are hesitant to use the Web for fear of seeming ignorant or unknowable

Language: Much of the Web is predominately in English, which can be a barrier for those whose primary language is American Sign Language (ASL) or those who speak another language as their primary language.

Web site design/Interface: The Web is increasingly graphic in nature with many multi-media elements. This can be a problem for older machines and for those using various adaptive equipment devices. If these interactive elements are not properly captioned or tagged, these adaptive devices cannot properly communicate the information that is given. Other Design/Interface issues concern choice of colors, size of text, incompatible browsers, and difficult navigation. Accessibility Guidelines not only make pages more accessible to people with disabilities, but also have the side benefit of making pages more accessible to all users, including users using different browsers, and users with handheld or voice-based computer systems.

Accessibility to Public Access Points: Public areas with Web access that has inaccessible physical facilities and lack of adaptive equipment available.

Supports: Lack of transportation to Public Access Points, and a lack of trained support staff.

These barriers can adversely affect people’s ability to receive an education, build a career, live independently, and can keep people from living the lifestyle that they want. These barriers are too large and complex for one organization or person to tackle. What is needed is a collaborative, multidisciplinary effort that brings together diverse ideas, skills and resources. Partnerships, when effectively organized, implemented, and evaluated, bring together the people and resources that can effectively begin to find solutions to the diverse problems of the Digital Divide. The situation is that people with disabilities want choices and independence in all aspects of their lives, not restrictions and dependence. Partnerships working towards technological inclusion can help advance these choices and independence by breaking down the barriers that foster restrictions and dependence.

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What is a Partnership?


Many terms such as coordination, collaboration, cooperative, coalition, alliance, affiliation and consortium are closely identified as a partnership, but some of these terms do not signify the level of commitment that guides a partnership. Partnerships are thought to be in the middle of a continuum that describes the commitment level of these activities. This can be seen as a five-part continuum (informal relations, coordination, partnership, collaboration, and integration) where stakeholders move from little to no change in basic system philosophy/practices to one where systemic change alters the entire basic operational philosophy/practices (Franklin and Streeter, 1996). Partnerships can be described as a mutual, supportive arrangement between organizations, agencies, businesses, and/or communities with the purpose of addressing a problematic situation. This arrangement is often detailed in a formal document that serves as a road map to how the partnership will operate and evolve. A critical element of this document is outlining how this partnership will be monitored and evaluated. The evaluation process will point out successes and deficiencies that provide insight as stakeholders make informed decisions concerning the direction of the partnership itself.

What are some of the basic processes in forming a partnership?


Awareness: Informing possible partners of possible partnering opportunities.

Needs Assessment: Gathering and interpreting information relevant to needs.

Potential Resources: What is needed effectively address needs.

Goals and Objectives: Broad and specific outcomes that are desired.

Program Design: Design of strategies that will enable the partnership to reach goals and objectives.

Management: Establishing administrative structure and setting rules and regulations for the partnership activities.

Recruitment: Getting people and organizations and identifying resources that will benefit the partnership in reaching it’s goals and objectives.

Assignment: Matching people and organizational strengths and interests to work that needs to be completed. This also includes assigning financial and material resources to needs.

Orientation: Help individuals, organizations, and participants understand the partnership’s goals and objectives, as well as their roles, group expectations, and policies related to the partnership.

Training: Preparing individuals and groups to perform tasks related to partnership activities.

Retention: Keeping partners actively involved and giving them a sense of ownership in the partnership. Recognize and reward partners for solid efforts.

Evaluation: Monitoring, collecting data, and evaluating data with the hope of identifying strengths, needs, and providing insight in decision-making situations.

Obviously, the forming of partnerships is much more complex than is provided by this brief description. There are many resources people can access in learning more about forming, implementing, and evaluating partnerships. Before people start thinking of forming a partnership, it is recommended that they learn more about this complex and delicate process. What barriers in operating a partnership can strip it of the ability to meet its objectives?


Turf issues (funds, roles etc)

Lack of information about other’s functions

Political issues

Personal agendas


Differing philosophies

Haphazard team process

Independent goals

Lack of a facilitator

Lack of monitoring/evaluating process

Lack of proper authority to make decisions to implement ideas


Resources: staff, time, budget

Logistics: distance, geography


Resistance to change


Lack of commitment to community needs

Poor administrative support

Discipline specific jargon and perspectives

Lack of authentic knowledge of issues

Lack of “ownership” felt by participants

These barriers will quickly and effectively restrict the ability of the partnership to be successful in meeting its objectives. In my opinion, the most crucial component in building effective partnerships is building relationships based on trust, respect, and support. The relational dynamics involved in partnerships are powerful and need to be observed.

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How can Partnerships help Bridge the Digital Divide in the Disability Community?

Simple. Partnerships bring together people, ideas, and resources that might not be available in a single organization or institution. Advocacy organizations, telecommunication organizations, educators, social service providers, research institutions, government officials, and people with disabilities (youth and adults) need to work together on these issues and disseminate the group activities and findings. It is common sense that the more resources and alternatives you have in solving a problem, the more likely the solutions will be effective and efficient. The challenge lies in constructively utilizing these alternatives and resources that meets the needs of the stakeholders and effectively addresses the problem. We must also take into consideration partnerships that are already working so as to avoid replication. Replication only consumes valuable resources, time, and effort.

We as individuals, businesses, organizations, institutions, communities, and governing bodies need to collectively unite our creative minds and develop ideas that will address the multifaceted problem of the Digital Divide. An example of one facet of the problem can be seen in the fact that many Americans cannot access the Internet due to their geographic location. Or that 44 millions people are functionally illiterate and 50 million more have limited literacy skills (Department of Education’s National Literacy Survey). These barriers involve huge obstacles such as our communications infrastructure, our education system, and our values as a society. Not an easy task, but one made more manageable with diverse perspectives, ideas, and resources. This is the power of partnerships. The key is to involve people that have expertise/interest in these areas with the purpose of acquiring a complete picture of the variables involved and finding solutions to the problems identified.

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Conclusions and Implications

Not having the ability to access the Internet and Informational Technology will reinforce and expand the divisions present in our communities and in our world. The “haves” will have more, and the “have-nots” will have less. The Digital Divide is an enormous dilemma for all people, not just people with disabilities. The purpose of this paper was to raise awareness about the potential power of partnerships in narrowing the Digital Divide for people with disabilities and to get people at multiple levels thinking about how their organizations, businesses, institutions, and communities can begin to partner with other groups. Hopefully, that has been accomplished. We also need to be able to identify successful partnerships already functioning and report those findings to others who are motivated to partner with the leaders in our society. By demonstrating that partnerships are a successful and effective tool in addressing the variables involved in the Digital Divide, it will be easier to get others to support and participate in these efforts.

Partnerships are a tool that can help address issues in all their complexity, identify options, and deliver resources more powerfully and effectively than any one organization or business can possibly do. However, in order for partnerships to work, they need to be organized, implemented, and evaluated successfully. Those involved in partnerships need to have a vested interest in the success of the partnership. They need to buy-in to the mission, goals, and objectives of the partnership without having secret agendas that are destructive. Utilizing a constructivist viewpoint, partnerships need to construct their own course, as each is unique. Who is involved and what are their expectations? What are their visions, objectives, and goals? What are their needs? What outcomes/impacts are they trying to achieve. Who do they communicate their achievements to? What format of communication do they use? How do they evaluate processes and outcomes of the partnership? There are many questions partnerships need to ask, but of critical importance is to consider the environment they are working in and the expectations of their stakeholders. But that is a whole other paper.

Finally, I would like to ask the readers of this article to identify partnerships they are involved with or know about that have achieved successful outcomes in bridging the Digital Divide and forwarding any information (documents, web pages) pertaining to that partnership to me at: tkearns2@qwest.net . We are looking for data related to partnering activities, partnering policies and practices, and a summary of strengths and weaknesses. I will compile this data into a “Best Practices in Partnerships addressing the Digital Divide” and post it via www.icdri.org.  This will enable us to identify correlational factors that tend be indicative of effective partnerships, organize it, and pass on that information to you and everyone else who seeks to use it.

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Ashe, J.A., Melnick, S., & Stroup, P. (1996). Developing Community Partnerships for School-to-Career Systems. National Association of Partners in Education Inc. (NAPE).

Chavkin, N.F. (1998). Making the case for school, family, and community partnerships. The School Community Journal 8(1), 9-21

Department of Education’s National Literacy Survey. http://litserver.literacy.upenn.edu/ncal.html 

Franklin, C. & Streeter, C.L. (1995). School Reform: Linking public schools with human services. Social Work 40, 772-783

Toseland, R.W. & Rivas, R.F. (1995). An introduction to group work practice: Second Edition. Allyn and Bacon

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US. Government Digital Divide Portal

The Digital Divide Network

Digital Partners

UCLA Center for Communications Policy

Internet Societal Task Force

The International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet

Pew Partnership for Civic Change

The Community Leadership Association

The Wilder Foundation

Copyright ©  2001 Taylor Kearns