Barriers to access: physical

A hand holding cell phone with messages “Read MSG from them” and “Hey Ben I’ll be home at four.”

There were three distinct aspects to the conversation about physical access. One was about infrastructure; whether or not Internet was available in the part of New Zealand where the participants lives. The second was about the physical location and accessibility of free Internet services. The third aspect was that physical devices, platforms, software and websites needed to be accessible and adaptive to the needs of users with disabilities.


Infrastructure tended to be raised as a potential barrier to digital inclusion only after groups had spent some time discussing financial and other physical, social and cultural barriers to Internet access. This probably reflects the fact that the infrastructure for Internet access is widely available in New Zealand.

However, there were some infrastructure challenges raised by participants specifically in the remote settlements and rural areas on the West Coast, and in the Bay of Plenty.

In the Buller Region around Westport, there are some small settlements and rural communities where people are still unable to access broadband. One teenager in our discussion group in Westport said she hadn’t had any access to the Internet at home until she moved into Westport, relatively recently. Prior to moving into town she had lived in an area that didn’t have access to broadband, or a 4G network. This had affected her education.

“I only just got the Internet, didn’t have Internet before I moved to town. … Yeah, it got a bit hard. I couldn’t do online homework they’d assign you.” – Independent youth, Westport

In the Bay of Plenty, participants reported that there were some spots where there was no cell phone coverage, which meant that you couldn’t access the Internet on your phone. This was particularly a problem when there was either no home Internet, or where the monthly home Internet contract had limited data which regularly ran out before the end of the month.

‘Because I live at my partners’, and his nan only gets I think the 20 gig, and that runs out.” – Teen parent, Kawerau

Without minimising the importance of extending the infrastructural reach of Internet access to all people in New Zealand, it would be fair to say that infrastructure was not the primary, or even one of the major, barriers to access identified by the participants in this research.

In general, people identified that barriers such as cost, trust and motivation were more influential in shaping how people were able to engage with the Internet, and that these barriers remained even when infrastructure issues were resolved.

One of the interviewees in Westport went to some length to make the point that focusing on infrastructure would be a mistake in terms of understanding the real barriers to digital inclusion in the Buller region, and also that a focus on infrastructure alone would be doomed to fail in terms of solutions.

“The broadband speed, that’s not it at all. It’s great that we’re getting that, but that’s not going to turn the tide for potential users, they need more than that.” – Community education advisor, Westport

Physical access to free Internet

The second aspect of conversations about physical access was about being able to access “digital devices and services at a time and place convenient to people”.

In the discussions and interviews, we heard a lot about the options available for free Internet access. These were widely seen as being a good service, but people also faced barriers trying to access them.

“You can get wifi at phone booths. Bus stops. McDonald’s. Wendy’s. I think all the food outlets? The hospital has wifi, but they only give you one hour.” – Women’s refuge group, Auckland

“Something I found out the other week, I was sitting in East Tamaki Health Care and there’s free wifi in there.’ – Women’s refuge group, Auckland

Most of the school students we spoke to had Internet access at school, although some schools had filters that prevented students (and often staff as well) accessing certain sites including social media. Some of the students told us that they had become fairly skilled at find their way around these filters, others thought the filters made sense. One participant who was both a teacher and the parent of a child with learning support needs, felt that these filters were creating unnecessary barriers to students’ digital access to useful resources.

“It seems strange but I know it happens at a lot of schools. I think it’s a control thing. And people being a little afraid of the Internet and knowing what kids might access. And a side of that is that they put barriers up in front of stuff that would actually be good for them.” – Teacher and parent of child with disabilities, Wellington

Most people cited their local library as a place where you could access the Internet for free, and in Westport we learned that one of the social work providers left their wifi on overnight and in the weekend so that their clients could come and use the Internet outside of office hours.

“I know our clients can still access wifi, we leave it on. I know I’ve seen some of them sit out there in the weekends.” – Social worker, Westport

A tertiary education provider in Kawerau did the same thing, although they had started turning the wifi off after 10pm to prevent young people from hanging around the campus late at night.

Two kids and a lady sit outside a community library made out of books

Parents of young and school-age children, in particular, told us it is often hard for them to get to places where free Internet was provided.

“They won’t give you access in your home so you have to go out, but what if you have babies?” – Women’s refuge group, Auckland

“I take my kids to the library, we sit outside the library because I’ve got no wifi at home… It could be late at night and we’ll be sitting there while he does his homework” – Women’s refuge

Accessing free Internet is also difficult for people with mobility issues, whether because of illness or disability.

“It’s free, but not in your home. You have to walk to a pay phone or to the library. I couldn’t even fricken walk a couple of months ago. How could I go outside to find a free WiFi?” –Women’s refuge group, Auckland

One woman told us that when she was going through chemotherapy treatment, she lost the ability to access free Internet at the local library.

“When I’m on chemo I can’t just go out and be around everyone else because I’m immunosuppressed. I don’t want to get sick!” – Women’s refuge group, Auckland

Another participant relied on free Internet at the library to do her school work and to talk with her family in Colombia, and found this was challenging because of the time difference.

“[If I had Internet] I wouldn’t have to be going out rain or shine to do homework at the library, you know? I could adjust the times in a more suitable way to be able to talk to my family [at a time when they are awake].” – Former refugee, Wellington

People also cited bad weather and lack of transport as other barriers to accessing the free wifi provided in their communities.

“Yeah, and when you really need to get hold of someone and then you have no credit, and it’s raining and you don’t have a car.” – Women’s refuge group, Auckland

In summary, most of the people we heard from appreciated having access to free Internet and used it regularly. But certain groups faced significant barriers to accessing these services including timing, transport, mobility and family-needs.

Accessible technology

In the conversations with young people with disabilities, financial barriers came up in relation to the cost of adaptive devices and software. The disabled youth we heard from felt very comfortable in their ability to get online when they had accessible technology.  Most of the participants had received digital teaching at school, and some through resource teachers of vision or hearing (RTVs/RTHs).

In general, a theme of the discussions with young people with disabilities was the challenge of accessing funding in order to keep connected via devices and software that was adapted to their impairments.

“I have a beautiful, beautiful surface Pro, which I got when I was first losing visual ability. Now I can’t fricken use it, because it’s not accessible. Like we can’t make it large enough without too much movement. So I have a very expensive paperweight!” – Youth with visual impairment, Wellington

If young people required adaptive software such as a screen reader or magnification programme or a device such as a headwand, they had usually received it. Although sometimes this was after a long wait, assessment period or going through multiple devices to find a good fit.

For people whose conditions change, for example a young woman with a degenerative visual impairment, their adaptive technology requirements changed as their condition changed, and this made the cost of digital access more difficult to meet, even where there is some funding available.  

“So buying technology and suddenly you can’t use it. So having to find something else.”

“Yes, absolutely. And then like, you’ve spent your budget on that.” – Youth with visual impairment, Wellington)

Another challenge for people whose adaptive technology needs changed as their conditions changed is that if they did send their current, no longer suitable, device away for upgrading or replacement through publicly funded processes, they found themselves unable to get online in the meantime. Often borrowing technology was not an option as devices are not universally accessible.  

“And then if you send that one away to get it fixed, or get a new one that meets your changing needs, then you can’t get online without it.” – Youth with visual impairment, Wellington

Participants did, however, tell us that there were new devices becoming available which would allow them to continue using the same device even as their conditions changed, the challenge was just going to be securing the funding for these devices.

“It’s actually a mess at the moment. Like I say, I’m busy applying for funding through the organisation who provide my home help. They have some funding channels and I’m pretty hopeful I’m going to get a phone through that. And they’re talking about being able to maybe get me a netbook. The same device is suitable for sighted people right through to totally blind people. [So I could keep using it as I lose sight] without any additional software or sending it away.” – Youth with visual impairment, Wellington

Difficulties arose when specialist technology malfunctioned or broke.  Factors such as cost of repair, limited grants and no spare technology being readily available to loan resulted in youth not being able to be online for periods of time.  This had more implications than the same issue for their non-disabled peers because it could feel more isolating when you are fully reliant on technology to schedule your day, navigate, communicate and socialise.  Some youth struggled at a slower pace and compromised other parts of life because there was no alternative.

Once online, people with disabilities continue to face barriers caused by inaccessible software, websites, platforms and content. This can range from a lack of closed captions on video content to apps and websites that are incompatible with speech and magnification software used by people with visual impairments. For speech software that might be not including alternative text to describe images or labels for headinging and other formatting elements, or using inaccessible video or Flash content. For magnification software, it might be low contrast text or buttons, or pop ups or banners which don’t account for text magnification. A lack of online content in New Zealand Sign Language also excludes some people.