The term digital divide refers to the gap that exists between those who have and those who do not have access to technology. The term gained popularity in the late 1990s, fueled in part by a series of reports from the U.S. Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The first of these reports, Falling Through The Net: A Survey of the "Have Nots" in Rural and Urban America, was released in July 1995. The report revealed an alarming disparity in computer and Internet use by ethnicity, education, and income level. Additional reports followed in 1998, 1999, and 2000. All of these reports, plus a variety of additional information, are available on NTIA's website Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide.

The 2002 report was the first to address people with disabilities as one of the excluded groups. The report, A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet, was generally more positive than its predecessors and provided data confirming, among other things, that computer and Internet use was increasing for people in the United States regardless of income, education, age, race, ethnicity, or gender. However, the report also showed that people with disabilities are much less likely to be computer or Internet users than people without disabilities. Details of this finding, broken down by disability category, are provided in Chapter 7, which focuses exclusively on people with disabilities.

This disparity between people with and without disabilities is confirmed by the Disability Statistics Center, funded by the U.S. Department of Education National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research to produce and disseminate policy-relevant statistical information on the demographics and status of people with disabilities in American society. Among its publications is a March 2000 report, Computer and Internet Use Among People with Disabilities (in PDF format only).

This study analyzed U.S. Census data and found that people with disabilities are less than half as likely as their nondisabled counterparts to have access to a computer at home (23.9% versus 51.7%), and even less likely to have access to the Internet (11.4% versus 31.1%). These differences between people with disabilities and people without disabilities were observed across age groups, employment status, educational attainment, family income, and race and ethnicity.

Explanations for the lack of access to technology for people with disabilities vary. However, an important step in addressing this problem is to ensure that students have equal access to technology in schools. In order for this to happen, schools must ensure that all students have access to needed assistive technology and that information technology purchased by their institutions is designed to be accessible to all students, including those with disabilities. For additional information, see the AccessIT Knowledge Base article What is accessible electronic and information technology?