Digital inclusion is the access of people to information-communication technologies (ICT) and the empowerment of people to use ICT to contribute to the digital economy and society, as well as their own economic and social development. Digital inclusion is not merely the possession of a computer, smartphone or internet access, but the competences required for equal participation in the digital age (information processing, content creation, security, communication, troubleshooting), and access to information, electronic public services, applications, etc.
Digital inclusion as an aspect of social inclusion covers accessible ICT, i.e. the development of technological solutions in accordance with the principles of universal design, assistive technologies, and digital skills. Increasing digital inclusion leads to a decrease in the gap between people for whom ICT is easily accessible and simple to use, and those for whom it is not.
It is paradoxical that in a world where digitalization is on the rise, and where ICT tools should make life easier, they are also setting new challenges before people who are already in a more unfavourable position compared to the general population.
Under the European Disability Strategy (2010–2020) digital inclusion in its broadest form covers overcoming barriers related to accessibility, participation, equality, employment, education, and social welfare. Seen as a key area in the Strategy, digital inclusion represents not only a political, but also a moral obligation. Therefore, based on a proposal by the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union adopted the Directive on the accessibility requirements for products and services to respond to the needs of 80 million persons with disabilities in the EU and enable their full participation in the digital economy and in society. In addition to accessibility, the Directive emphasizes the importance of social participation, the development of products and services in accordance with the needs of persons with disabilities, access to various assistive and other technologies (e.g. automated machines, ticket dispensing devices, self-service interactive terminals in stations, in banks…) and the development of this market, to ensure a higher degree of independence and decrease the need for other healthcare and social welfare services.
Digital Inclusion in Serbia
According to studies by the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia the country is making great progress in the field of internet access. Namely, data from 2017 indicates that nearly 73% of the households in Serbia have an internet connection. This percentage registers an increase compared to the previous reporting period in 2013, when 55.8% of households had an internet connection. However, taking into consideration geographic areas, there is a notable digital gap where 78% of households in urban settlements have an internet connection, while in rural areas the number is 63%. The highest share is in Belgrade, at 82%.
There is progress in the field of public digital services: public digital service and e-government, regarding the adaptation of media content to persons with disabilities, such as subtitles, or the Law on the Use of Sign Language adopted in 2015, with funds invested into opening an interpreter service for Serbian sign language, available for deaf and hard-of-hearing persons. However, there is still room for improvement to make this service available throughout the territory of Serbia.
According to data from 2015, 48% of the websites of public administration bodies, 69% of the websites of territorial autonomy bodies and 54% of the websites of local self-governments have met the basic accessibility standards for persons with disabilities. The Law on e-Government adopted in 2018 and a by-law regulate this field, but additional efforts are needed to implement legal obligations in all public administration bodies (at the national and local level) of having a website and managing it in accordance with basic e-accessibility principles. This means that e-government services are being provided in a manner ensuring access and the use of information and documents for persons with disabilities without technical, audio-visual, semantic and linguistic limitations. The Use of Information-Communication Technologies in the Republic of Serbia for 2018 study by the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia shows that 37.3% of the internet population is using internet services instead of making personal contacts or visiting public institutions or administration bodies, most frequently for obtaining information from the websites of public institutions and for downloading official forms. Respondents that have not been downloading forms state the main reason for this as having no need, while the second most cited reason is – lack of skills.
Regarding human capital, i.e. the possession of digital skills, data from the last Population Census (2011) shows a low level of computer literacy in the Republic of Serbia – 51% of persons aged 15 and above are computer illiterate, 34.2% of persons are computer literate, while 14.8% are partially computer literate. These missing digital skills are precisely the issue that may increase the current disparity. The key to success in this challenge lies not in attending a one-off course, but in systematic investments into the development of digital skills among students, youth, as well as adults and the elderly, and their dedication to lifelong learning in accordance with new challenges brought on by the digital age.
This lack of skills should be viewed as an opportunity for investment into the development of key digital skills among citizens regardless of age, while for representatives of vulnerable groups additional attention should be given to access to information and ICT accessibility to increase their social and economic participation. The degree of digital inclusion of a society shows the readiness of a community to fully embrace the digital age.
(The text was originally published as the Introduction to the 58th Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Newsletter.)