Using COVID lessons to unlock the digital world for people with disability

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many innovations in how we interact digitally – and a Curtin University research project has won significant funding to ensure people living with disability can also benefit from what’s been learned.

The Australian Research Council has awarded Professor Katie Ellis and her team more than $1 million as part of its Mid-Career Industry Fellowships Program, to investigate how digital services can be made more inclusive and accessible.

Director of Curtin’s Centre for Culture and Technology, Professor Ellis said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many shortcomings in how digital platforms cater to people with disability – which had many consequences.

“During the initial stages of the pandemic, there was no substantial effort to consult with people with disability or their representative organisations about their communication needs,” Professor Ellis said.

“This delayed the development of disability-specific policy and the dissemination of clear, consistent, and accessible information about the pandemic across relevant platforms: as a result, people with disability experienced increased risk of contracting the disease, severe disease or death and of new or worsening health conditions.

“As the pandemic progressed, innovative digital communication strategies were developed in Australia and internationally that could inform long-term digital inclusion for people with disability.”

In collaboration with the Centre for Inclusive Design, Professor Ellis said the research project aimed to improve the lives of the 20 per cent of Australians who identify as having a disability and meet Australia’s Disability Strategy 2021-31 priorities.

“Digitisation can be immensely beneficial: more than half of Australians with disability use assistive or mainstream digital technology to participate in everyday life,” she said.

“But it can also perpetuate the exclusions these people experience within society – be it social, health, employment, or educational settings – because we still do not fully understand their broad and individual needs.

“Our research team will work with people with disability to provide evidence-based recommendations to government, industry and community groups who create digital platforms to address these challenges.”

Curtin University Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research Professor Melinda Fitzgerald congratulated Professor Ellis and her team on securing a highly sought-after ARC grant.

“This project is a great example of Curtin researchers striving to achieve real world impact through collaborative partnership,” Professor Fitzgerald said.

“Well done to Professor Ellis and all involved.”

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