Accessibility in Intercultural Competence

Equity is often related to justice or proportional fairness… Equality differs from equity in that it relates more to sameness or equal distribution. In society, equal treatment does not always produce an equitable result.”

Over the last year, we have learned a great deal about how to engage with the world around us when limited to virtual spaces, communication, education, and socialisation. In some cases, the shift to online spaces and remote work or learning has provided unforeseen advantages. In others, it has shone a light on the disparities that exist in our societies. 

In the US, during the height of the pandemic, nearly half of the working population worked from home and many are eager to continue working remotely even after the pandemic. 93% of households with school-age children engaged in distance learning with at least 65% completing their schooling online. And international travel has been extremely limited with some estimates saying it may be another three years before travel returns to a pre-Covid level. 

Although this is by no means an ideal situation, the present circumstances offer us the chance to explore how we utilise virtual spaces and how we can benefit from continuing to invest in these spaces, especially in ways that facilitate the development of intercultural competence.

Increased Accessibility

With conferences, lectures, and meetups cancelled, organisations including World Council moved to online platforms like Zoom to virtually connect with members and interested parties. World Council itself hosted two virtual meetups with over 100 attendees each, allowing members from all over the globe to join, many who had previously been unable to actively participate. 

Where physical conferences and meetings often require travel or time that participants may be unable to sacrifice, especially in the case of international participants, virtual conferences open the doors to anyone with an internet connection. Students and those without a professional or academic background in intercultural competence may feel more at ease joining an online meetup, watching a livestream, or participating in a webinar. Additionally, many webinars and online sessions have taken steps to ensure that transcripts, closed captions, sign language translators, and other accessibility aids are provided to maximise their reach. 

Maintaining Accessibility

Even so, online spaces are not perfect, and we are still very much learning how to create universally accessible online spaces. There are practical limitations: time constraints, technological glitches, a lack of personal connection, asynchronous versus synchronous activities. But beyond the commonplace annoyances that come with the medium of virtual engagement, there are more challenging issues. Most glaringly, virtual spaces require internet access. 

In the wake of the pandemic, 500 million students worldwide are unable to access remote learning. In the US, many lower income families relied on paper materials for their children to continue schooling at home. Though the idea of “internet as a human right” has been a topic of conversation over the last two decades, the pandemic shone a light on the inequities of internet access. If people are limited in their ability to access the internet for vital purposes like acquiring medical updates or completing a remote job, it is unlikely that they are in a position to delve deeper and explore virtual spaces for intercultural competence. 

Additionally, with online spaces, we may not immerse ourselves in conversations in the same way we would in person. The degree of anonymity provided online spaces and the relative brevity of online interactions can be a stumbling block in communication. Visual and verbal cues, especially ones with cultural significance, may go intentionally or unintentionally unnoticed. For the sake of efficiency, accessibility aids (translations, transcripts, etc.) may be forgone unless specifically requested. 

What next?

Moving forward, it is clear that virtual spaces will continue to be an important part of society. Thus, developing spaces that are aware of their limitations and eager to improve accessibility is vital. In their State of America’s Libraries 2021 special report, the ALA highlighted several ways in which public libraries identified and addressed needs in their communities. Libraries extended their Wi-Fi to work outside the buildings, loaned out laptops, and even used bookmobiles as Wi-Fi hotspots (Zalusky, 2021). Though these were undoubtedly helpful initiatives to ensure access to digital resources during the pandemic, they also revealed additional inequalities that require action in other areas (such as the need for supportive legislation or partnerships with other organisations). 

In applying this to virtual ICC spaces, it is vital to recognise that creating effective spaces is a dynamic process. Intercultural competence at its core requires other people. We learn from and engage with each other, recognising the diversity of perspectives and experiences, many of which are overlooked, and identifying how those impact how we communicate with each other and how we develop effective online spaces. We continuously experiment with techniques and approaches, learning and adapting in light of success and failure. 

Reflection Questions

  • What are examples of ICC you’ve seen in online spaces?
  • How does developing and practicing ICC differ in person versus online?
  • How can we increase accessibility in intercultural competence development in online spaces? Outside of online spaces? 


Equality vs. equity: What is the difference? (n.d.). Merriam-Webster. 

McElrath, K. (2020, August 26). Schooling During the COVID-19 Pandemic. The United States Census Bureau. 

Parker, K., Horowitz, J. M., & Minkin, R. (2020, December 9). How Coronavirus Has Changed the Way Americans Work. Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. 

USAFacts. (2020, December 10). 65% of households with children report the use of online learning during pandemic. USAFacts. 

van Deursen A. J. (2020). Digital Inequality During a Pandemic: Quantitative Study of Differences in COVID-19-Related Internet Uses and Outcomes Among the General Population. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(8), e20073. 

Whitley, A., Gale, J., Patel, T., & Jasper, C. (2021, February 4). Brace Yourself: Long-haul Travel May Not Get Going Until 2023. Bloomberg. 

Wong, M. (2020, June 29). A snapshot of a new working-from-home economy. Stanford News. 

Zalusky, S. (2021, April). State of America’s Libraries 2021: A Report from the American Library Association. 

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