Digital participation for all

In today's world, many tasks and processes can be accomplished online, such as shopping, research and communicating with others. Virtually everyone who lives in Germany uses a smartphone or owns another device that can connect to the internet, which allows them to voice their opinions or engage in other activities. These devices help people participate in social life. This is also referred to as digital participation.

And yet, various studies have shown that many individuals are removed from digital technology and do not utilise digital devices. This means that their digital and social participation is limited. Here we provide a succinct overview of what digital participation means, what challenges are involved in this complex issue, and how solutions to the phenomenon might be found. But first, let's take a look at the term "digital participation" and some possible definitions.

What does digital participation mean?

The term "digital participation" is becoming increasingly significant in the era of digitalisation. Today, many work processes, along with purchasing and entertainment offers, are being digitalised. In the past, letters were sent to customers and school assignments were handed in on paper, though today, the internet, online forms and emails are the norm. Invoices are delivered via apps and contracts are concluded online. Without an email address, it's no longer possible to access a great deal of information. As we navigate the era of digitalisation, online apps are vital to ensure that people can stay connected to social issues.

Digital participation means in general that everyone has access to digital developments and can participate in social life –  because without this access, many people cannot engage in social discussions or use services offered by businesses and organisations. They are not heard, and they are left out. Digital participation thus goes hand in hand with social participation. Reasons why people can't participate digitally extend from a lack of ability or the lack of a device to physical or psychological restrictions.

Finger tippt auf ein Tablet mit verschwommenden Lichtern im Hintergrund

Digital participation in everyday life

A day without a smartphone, laptop, or other digital devices? Some people can't imagine it. Not only the number of internet users has increased; so has the number of digital devices. These devices are with us throughout the day, and we use them to communicate with friends or to shop online, for example. They help us participate in society and relieve us of many tasks. The delocalization of such communication is especially important. This means we can be reached anywhere and at any time through our devices and that we can voice our opinions or coordinate a variety of tasks. Assistance systems have also allowed people with disabilities to organise their everyday lives independently and autonomously, and to communicate in their environment. 

Senioren machen einen Videochat mit der Familie

Digital participation and accessibility

People with physical or psychological disabilities find it particularly difficult to participate digitally in society. Many applications are intended solely for those without impairments. This means that people with disabilities are quickly excluded and must invest more time in dealing with digital applications.

Because of this, an increasing number of companies now offer the option of setting their websites to accessible mode or of reading the website in plain language. This makes it easier for people with disabilities to understand the pages' content. Some sites provide sign language videos to deliver content to people with hearing impairments. Voice control systems can also read content aloud to serve individuals with visual impairments. These tools provide barrier-free access to content for people with disabilities, making them autonomous in their daily lives and reducing the need for outside help. 

Digital participation in the social sphere

Not only people with disabilities find it difficult to participate in the digital world. People with refugee or migration backgrounds often lack the necessary funds and do not necessarily have sufficient media literacy. Along with these two aspects, the language barrier adds another layer of difficulty for people with migration backgrounds to participate in society. Mobile phones can be set to the respective language.

For this reason, it is crucial for companies to have multilingual websites. They make it possible to reach many more members of the public who can participate in society without the need for an interpreter. A website version in plain language allows people with little knowledge of the local language to roughly understand the content and become more confident on the internet.

Older people who did not grow up in the digital world must also learn or be taught how to use media. This not only allows them to engage with society but is part of a self-sufficient life. Senior citizens are more easily reachable through smartphones and can communicate with family members or peers. Assistance systems, life support and smart home technologies allow older people to continue living at home longer and to increase their self-reliance, supported by technologies such as fall detection, care robots, and fire safety systems.

Many socially disadvantaged people also have no access to digital technology. Their primary problem is that they lack the money to acquire digital end devices. Their monthly income typically stretches only to the bare necessities, and they can't afford extras like smartphones or laptops. Residential facilities also usually only have limited internet access. Publicly accessible, free-use computers and free Wi-Fi hotspots can help alleviate this problem, particularly in view of the high purchase cost of hardware and software. Training courses offered by adult education centres or other projects also help.

Schuljunge beim digitale Unterricht

Digital participation in schools

Classroom education without digital devices is almost inconceivable nowadays. Researching certain subjects has become an integral part of teaching and homework. Giving presentations, searching for images, or finding translations can also be complicated without the internet. While many schools are already equipped with computers, private households of socially disadvantaged families do not have these devices, or there are not enough of them for all the children. Yet it is precisely at home where an internet-enabled device is essential for research and homework. Many parents also turn to the internet for assistance when they want to help their little ones with learning difficulties.

Especially during the coronavirus pandemic, students had to switch to digital platforms because normal face-to-face teaching was not possible. Children from households that do not have access to the internet or where not all children have their own devices struggle to participate in class. Even without any specific learning difficulties, the children have little chance to participate in the lessons. Because of this, during the pandemic, a number of initiatives and projects worked to provide computers and Wi-Fi hotspots in order to make education possible. 

Frau arbeitet aus dem Home Office

Digital participation in the world of work

Not only our daily life is becoming increasingly digital; our working world is also more shaped by digitalisation than ever before. Robots and artificial intelligence are taking on an increasing number of jobs in production. However, software and other applications are not immediately accessible to everyone. This might be due to insufficient explanations, limited workspace, or illegible texts. 

The coronavirus in particular led the world of work to become increasingly digital, and mobile working is now a matter of course for many professions. This style of work requires new competencies in terms of personal work design and team cohesion, but it also provides greater opportunities for people with disabilities to enter the workforce.  Technical requirements must also be met. Having a certain level of expertise is especially critical for people to continue working and earning a living. That's why it's important for employers to provide opportunities for people with limited media literacy or disabilities, or from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, to work in their companies. Among other things, technical requirements must be right for this to be successful in the long term. This doesn't just have a positive impact on the company; it also places completely new demands on how employment contracts and company regulations are structured so that the blurring of work and private life does not lead to inappropriate exploitation of the workforce.


Goals and challenges of digital participation

Although digitalisation has progressed significantly, not everyone has the opportunity to participate in public digital life because they are not internet users. There are a number of reasons for this.

One risk to digital participation is a lack of media literacy. Many people have access to the internet through computers or mobile phones but don't know how to use them. Insecurity and anxiety means that the hardware is rarely used. As digitalisation progresses quickly, there are constantly new devices, applications and skills to learn, causing digital literacy to wane over time. Trained staff who can explain how to use the devices are required to boost these skills. Yet these people also must be paid for teaching digital literacy.

Another obstacle to digital participation, apart from the skills required to operate the devices, is the high cost of purchasing and updating hardware. People from less affluent backgrounds may find it harder to afford a laptop or mobile phone compared to those from wealthier backgrounds. This disparity between the rich and the poor makes digital participation more difficult. People with disabilities can often not afford the different or additional equipment they need.

Another issue that influences digital participation is data autonomy. This means that people consciously choose not to participate in digital society because of concerns about their data. They want to protect their privacy by not risking that their personal data will be disclosed and used by third parties.

The goal of digital participation is to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to access digital services. Various forms of assistance should make this possible for the entire population. In addition, specific projects are needed to educate people about data protection, so that everyone can consciously decide what data they disclose when using digital services. To further enhance media literacy, many adult education centres offer a variety of internet courses.

More about digital participation

What is digital participation?

Many work processes and societal issues are now digitalised, which has shifted everyday tasks like shopping or communicating to the online world. Whereas people previously went to a DIY store, today there are countless delivery and online shopping services. Many services and forms are now only available online. Those who are not using these online services will struggle to participate in society and to share their opinions. This so-called digital participation goes hand in hand with social participation, as people without digital devices and skills are frequently not in a position to participate in society.

What is digital inclusion?

Inclusion signifies that individuals from different walks of life are an integral part of society. Everyone is included, regardless of their appearance, disabilities or language. Different people work, live and reside together without exclusion or prejudice. Inclusion forms the guiding principle of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and is a fundamental right.

Digital inclusion can be defined as inclusion in the digital world. It means that people with disabilities, older people, people with a migrant background, the socially disadvantaged, and those with low media literacy are integrated into the digital world or into digital media. Tools such as simplified language or assistance software and projects from various initiatives facilitate this integration in different settings.

What are the challenges of digital participation?

Digital participation poses a variety of challenges. For the public to engage in society and take advantage of the available offerings, there must generally be a certain degree of digital literacy; this is the only way people can use the hardware and software. However, this first requires internet access and the proper equipment. This point is especially crucial for those in economically disadvantaged situations, where there may not be enough money for smartphones and laptops. People with disabilities and those with a migration background must also be offered various forms of assistance, such as plain language or the option to use different languages, so that they can make more confident use of the internet.

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