Potential and Possibility 2024: Addressing digital exclusion

Chapman and Gabriella during one of their virtual buddying sessions.

The digitisation of our social lives and support services has introduced new barriers as well as new joys for disabled people, and can perpetuate feelings of loneliness. 

Following the pandemic, lots of us found new ways to connect with our loved ones online. There are many physical barriers and emotional demands that mean in-person meet ups aren’t right for everyone. 61% of people with complex disabilities use social media and digital technology to keep in touch with friends and family. 

This movement helped inform the creation of Sense Virtual Buddying, our befriending service that matches disabled people with a volunteer to connect with online. For people like Chapman, who has autism and is blind, connecting with a buddy via weekly calls is more manageable and less daunting than an in-person meet-up. 

Awkward and frustrating experiences 

Nearly half of people with complex disabilities face exclusion as they struggle to access and engage with services online.

Source: Potential and Possibility research 2024

Despite the benefits of social media and digital communications, other aspects of life don’t translate so well into the digital space. Website and online processes often aren’t accessible, and people with complex disabilities are left behind.  

Nearly half (46%) of people with complex disabilities face exclusion as they struggle to access and engage with services online. This exclusion affects all aspects of life, from leisure activities to important admin.  

41% of people with complex disabilities found planning an outing or holiday online difficult. This places barriers between disabled people and their right to enjoy the same experiences as everyone else. It can also perpetuate feelings of isolation, which people with complex disabilities are particularly vulnerable to. 

When it comes to attempting online shopping or dealing with the local council, disabled people report finding the experience “awkward and frustrating”. 

In 2021, Molly, who’s in her late twenties, spoke to us about the loneliness she felt during the pandemic. She has Usher syndrome, which affects her sight and hearing. After the lockdowns lifted, Molly was optimistic about the future of online accessibility: 

A woman standing at a podium, speaking into a microphone. She's got shoulder-length brown hair and is wearing a grey top.

“With the world growing more digitally inclined, I feel things will be gradually become more accessible, and life will hopefully improve for people who have disabilities. 

“Non-disabled people can, since the Covid-19 lockdowns, possibly empathise more with how people with disabilities can face both digital and environmental exclusion, social separation and lack of independence. 

“Being able to access the local community, sports sessions and even navigating the world of education and work does a lot to combat loneliness and the feelings of low self-esteem.” 

Read Molly’s story: I would love for life to become more accessible

It’s disappointing that the wide-spread improvements in inclusive online practices, as envisioned by Molly, haven’t yet arrived. 42% of people with complex disabilities reported that they’d like to do more online, but that it just isn’t accessible to them. 

Protecting the health and happiness of disabled people 

Nearly half of people with complex disabilities found it difficult to book a GP or medical appointment online.

Source: Potential and Possibility research 2024

Other vital services that have been moved out of reach by digitalisation includes health support. Nearly half (44%) of people with complex disabilities found it difficult to book a GP or medical appointment online. Our research prompted people to share their experiences of grappling with digital forms and processes: 

“Because a lot of forms have to be done online, the questions don’t always make sense, or you don’t have enough room to explain your answers – they also time you out, which has a high impact on somebody who is disabled, and it limits what you can get out of services accessed online.” 

Given the higher levels of care and medical support needed by disabled people, any barriers to support could have serious implications. 

The move towards digital systems and processes should be about expanding options and opportunities for everyone, including disabled people. Despite the differing experiences of the accessibility of online interactions, many recognise that digitisation offers new, better ways to support and include disabled people.  

About this research 

Potential and Possibility is an annual piece of research on the experiences and aspirations of people with complex disabilities. The research involves polling and our own survey. This year we involved 1,279 people with complex disabilities in our research. This year (2024) is the third year we have carried out this research. 

These pages reflect the latest information from our 2024 research, building on our findings from 2023 and 2022. 

If you have any questions about the research, please contact [email protected]