It’s been a tumultuous year. If one thing has become clear during this global pandemic, it’s that keeping the economy, education, healthcare, and community support systems in motion has hinged on our ability to connect to fast, reliable internet. Internet connectivity should be seen as an essential service, and all people should be empowered to benefit from the wealth of experiences it creates like increased access to health care, remote education, and work-from-home opportunities.
Not having internet connectivity at home has prevented too many people from performing daily duties, and the impact this has had on the disability community has been even more restrictive. Disability and poverty often go hand-in-hand, and many people with disabilities that lack high-speed broadband service, internet browsing devices, and digital literacy training face intersecting disparities that only perpetuate unequal opportunity and the pattern of inaccessibility these communities historically have faced.
The digital divide faced by people with disabilities creates prevalent barriers that cause isolation and segregation from mainstream society and limit our community’s potential and we cannot waste any more time on this issue. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 61 million adults in the United States live with a disability, and according to Statista, only 59.6% of people in the U.S. living with a disability have internet access, compared to 78.5% of people without a disability that have internet access.
This disproportion heavily hinders people with disabilities from seeking jobs and learning opportunities. Getting connected to high-speed internet both empowers and enables people with disabilities to become more independent. Even more, this gap in the digital divide is a barrier for people to complete critical everyday tasks like ordering groceries online, or even high-priority activities like looking up voting information online or making an appointment to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. During this period of virtual schooling, students with disabilities often lacked the proper tools and accessibility to navigate this mode of instruction.
This gap in access to education makes it all the more likely that graduating students with disabilities are even more at risk for entering a cycle of unequal treatment as they try to enter the workforce. Even for those with disabilities already in the workforce, a lack of commitment to virtual accessibility has meant that disabled employees have not been able to reap the benefits of working from home. According to Forbes, most businesses still don’t factor accessibility into their products, services and communications; whether it’s providing closed captions on video calls to make sure all employees can participate to help those with hearing impairment, or making websites accessible to all. It’s also about providing digital literacy education to help all people learn.
At the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), we recognize the need to close the digital divide and support grant programs to empower state and local governments, school districts, and community nonprofits to have effective outreach to under-resourced communities and multilingual digital literacy training programs. We strive to increase the political and economic power of people with disabilities, and we know that it’s time for Congress to do the same by supporting a long-term low-income broadband subsidy that will help guarantee the educational benefits and economic prosperity that comes with the ability to get online.
Now is the time to ensure there is equal and reliable access for all Americans, especially those with disabilities and other marginalized communities. Technology has so much potential to increase independence and expand community connection in the lives of people with disabilities. To make this our reality Congress must take bold action and create change in providing a long-term broadband subsidy to ensure that low-income communities have the resources they need to take full advantage of the opportunities that are available on the internet.
Maria Town is the President and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. In this role, she works to increase the political and economic power of people with disabilities. Previously, she served as the Director of the City of Houston Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities where she advocated for the rights and needs of citizens with disabilities. Town also worked in the Obama White House Office of Public Engagement as a senior associate director where she managed the White House’s engagement with the disability community and older Americans.