Infusing State Broadband Planning with Inclusion and Accessibility

What are State Digital Equity Plans?

State Digital Equity Plans are a requirement for any State that receives funding from the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is managing this program to provide $60 million to fund the development of Digital Equity Plans, which States, DC, Territories, and Tribal entities are creating. According to NTIA, States should create these plans to “identify barriers to digital equity and outline specific measures aimed at addressing those barriers.”

What Broadband Barriers Exist for People with Disabilities?

Reliability and affordability are two of the barriers that people with disabilities face in securing at-home internet access. As Oneisha Freeman, Digital Connectivity Manager at the Georgia Technology Authority (GTA), shared on PEAT’s Future of Work Podcast, even when high-speed internet access is available, “when it comes to affordability or access to a device that can then connect to that internet, there [are] still gaps there.”

This assertion is supported by Disability and the Digital Divide: Internet Subscriptions, Internet Use and Employment Outcomes, a report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). ODEP’s research found that working-age adults with disabilities reported at higher rates than working-age adults without disabilities that cost or affordability was their household’s primary barrier to home internet use.

Further, as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy Taryn Williams noted, “At-home internet is a critical employment support, connecting people to education, training, job applications, and even hybrid work.” ODEP’s report similarly confirmed that home internet access has a significant relationship to people with disabilities remaining employed. Between November 2019 and November 2020, employment retention was highest among workers with disabilities who had internet access at home. In addition, ODEP’s report notes that: “24.4 percent of people with disabilities without an internet subscription at home transitioned from employed in 2019 to out of the labor force in 2020, while just 13.0 percent of people with disabilities with mobile, satellite or dial-up at home did.”

State Profile: How Louisiana Incorporated Accessibility into the State Digital Equity Plan

States are working on customized approaches to meet the unique access needs of their constituents. This means including not only disabled people but disabled people with intersecting identities (who are also members of other marginalized communities) in their planning efforts. David Lehman, a Program Manager for the State of Louisiana, shared his state’s strategy and approach for engaging these key constituents in their plan’s creation.

Q: What steps did you take when researching how to include stakeholders with disabilities in your draft State Digital Equity Plan?

A: To engage with the disabled population, we began with the Governor’s Office of Disability Affairs (GODA), our internal office ADA Coordinator, and key stakeholders. We began by hosting listening sessions where leaders within this population were invited. These were 90-minute listening sessions where we asked a few strategic questions and listened thoughtfully to the recorded responses. At the end, we made a note of the most engaged participants and invited them to more in-depth focus groups where we could have a more robust conversation. Doing so allowed us to mindfully engage with the disabled population on our Digital Equity Plan.

We relied heavily on a culture of trust, empathy, and listening, with the end goal of delivering results to the everyday citizen. Doing so allowed us to learn about our disabled neighbors, foster a culture of trust, and deliver digital equity results.

Q: Were you surprised by any of the information you learned while integrating disability and intersectionality into your plan?

A: We are often reminded of the intersectionality of the four digital equity “walls” we identified: access, affordability, devices, and digital skills. When any one of these “walls” fails to exist, the digital equity “house” falls. For example, without access, one cannot use the internet. If one has access, but lacks affordability, they cannot subscribe to internet services. If one lacks a device, affordable access is irrelevant as they have no portal with which to use the internet. Finally, a citizen could have the three previous walls, but without the digital skills or knowing how to effectively use their internet, they become left behind in the online ecosystem.

In particular, with the rural disabled population, these needs are exacerbated. Many rural disabled citizens need internet access to engage in community life. They often face barriers to affordability due to having pressing healthcare costs and other expenses. Some disabled people also need their devices to be set up for ease-of-use with highly specific software to communicate. Finally, some citizens need customized digital skills training to learn how to use their internet accessible device.

The answers above represent one of many possible approaches. No matter the approach, it is critical for all State Digital Equity Plans to include and represent people with disabilities and intersecting identities.

How Is PEAT Working to Promote Inclusion in the Plans?

In July 2023, ODEP’s PEAT initiative teamed up with NTIA to host a virtual Think Tank on Defining Disability Inclusion & Accessibility Technical Assistance (TA) & Resources for State Programs. During the Think Tank, participants discussed ways that States can craft inclusive State Digital Equity Plans that serve the needs of people with disabilities and members of other covered populations.

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