On July 20, 2023, the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) hosted a virtual Think Tank on Defining Disability Inclusion & Accessibility Technical Assistance (TA) & Resources for State Programs. The Think Tank’s goal was to help states build inclusive State Digital Equity Plans that serve the needs of people with disabilities and members of other covered populations that are named in the Digital Equity Act of 2021 who have historically experienced lower rates of internet and computer usage. These include:
- People with disabilities
- People who are 60 years of age or older
- Incarcerated individuals
- Members of a racial or ethnic minority group
- Rural residents
- People with a language barrier
- People living in households with incomes not exceeding 150 percent of the poverty level
The event brought together leaders from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s NTIA, as well as experts in federal and state policy, broadband access, disability inclusion, intersectional equity, and more. Speakers shared their expertise during “Lightning Discussion” talks, and participants joined breakout groups where they discussed strategies to ensure broadband access is equitable, accessible, and reaches all populations. Following this Think Tank, PEAT and NTIA aim to develop practices that can bolster State Digital Equity Plans in support of the President’s Internet for All initiative.
Think Tank participants discussed the following common themes:
- Help people make the most of broadband access to improve their lives and livelihoods.
Broadband equity is not just about getting access to the internet; it is about what people will do with that access. State Digital Equity Plan creators should consider inclusive strategies that lead to meaningful access for people with disabilities and other covered populations. This will impact how these community members obtain employment, use telehealth services, enroll in educational or training opportunities, and more.
- Learn from and thoughtfully engage with people who have diverse lived experiences.
Disability is present in all communities. Listening to people with different lived experiences, including those who identify as having mental, physical, cognitive, and sensory disabilities, chronic conditions, and people who are multiply marginalized, will help ensure inclusive plans for digital equity. Equitably engage people in digital and physical spaces, by ensuring accessibility, respecting engagement fatigue, and possibly offering compensation for their expertise.
- Use state-specific data to connect unserved, underserved, and marginalized groups.
State Digital Equity Plans should reflect robust qualitative and quantitative data directly related to covered populations within states. In many cases, states turn to national data when they need to fill in gaps, which is not targeted enough to address their needs as they create policies and programs.
- Strengthen community resource networks and maintain steady engagement.
Connecting with and learning from libraries, nonprofits, community efforts, state and local governments, and other groups embedded in diverse communities is important. State Digital Equity Plan creators and implementers should find connection points to these diverse community ecosystems, potentially through maintained lists or directories. Leaders from these community groups should have space on boards, planning committees, and other positions where they can contribute to outcomes that positively impact the people they represent.
- Build inclusion into every aspect of the process, from planning to the final product.
Often accessibility and inclusion are considered at specific planning stages or just in the final results. State Digital Equity Plan creators should implement universal design best practices that consider a wide range of needs. The “curb cut effect” will help create the best design for the most people.
During the Think Tank, many participants shared barriers that could present problems for State Digital Equity Plan creators as they consider the needs of people with disabilities in the communities they serve. Through these discussions, other participants offered potential solutions or pathways to navigate each barrier. A few of these discussions are summarized below.
Digital Literacy Is Not Universal
- Barrier: Even when broadband is available in their community, some people may not know how to get connected or be able to obtain the devices or tools required to gain access.
- Possible Solution: Add Digital Navigators at local and regional levels. Digital Navigator programs have a proven track record and could support activities to help people know what affordable and accessible internet options exist, how to sign up for services, how to access funding for digital devices, where in their state they can learn about or test assistive technologies, and more.
Community Members May Not Identify as Disabled or Disclose Their Disabilities
- Barrier: In some communities, disability disclosure is more common and accepted than in others. Some people may not want to disclose a disability or may not self-identify as being disabled. The choice to disclose is an individual right, and each person’s comfort level may differ depending on their background or membership in covered populations, and the situational context.
- Possible Solution: Leverage universal design in broadband technologies and digital content, and work toward inclusion as a best practice. By taking this approach, the public will likely be able to access services in a manner that meets their functional or accessibility needs without having to identify as disabled, make an accommodation request, or disclose their disability unless they choose to do so.
Data on Disability Inclusion and Accessibility Is Siloed and Incomplete
- Barrier: Although national data can give an overall picture of the digital divide facing people with disabilities, states often do not have access to complete datasets about the complex factors that contribute to this divide in their local communities. Specific data about disability-related needs can be siloed or unavailable. To develop targeted services, State Digital Equity teams need a baseline to work from as they build and implement plans.
- Possible Solution: Collecting and disaggregating data about various disabilities could help states create better policies and programs, especially when mapped to other covered populations and factors such as at-home broadband connectivity and device access. States could also consider collecting qualitative data that shows how the lack of connectivity and device access impacts the lives of people in their communities across covered populations. Participants noted, however, that there will be data sovereignty challenges, and data collection is complex.
Impacted Stakeholders Have Limited Time
- Barrier: Advocacy groups that represent and convene people with disabilities can work at national, regional, and local levels, but many have limited time and resources to share their policy expertise. This challenge can make it difficult for covered populations to participate in each state’s separate discussions about their State Digital Equity Plan.
- Possible Solution: State Digital Equity Plans could include a requirement to proactively engage these stakeholders, specifically those that assist people with disabilities and other covered populations. If this approach is selected, it would be beneficial to create a list or directory of community stakeholder groups that plan creators could include in their planning and implementation activities.
ODEP and NTIA leadership joined more than fifty participants for this virtual event. Opening remarks included the following:
- Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy Taryn Williams expressed that everyone should have access to reliable broadband connections and accessible devices. She stated, “At-home internet is a critical employment support, connecting people to education, training, job applications, and even hybrid work.”
- Digital Equity Director for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Angela Thi Bennett asserted that affordability is a key factor in equitable broadband access. She urged participants to consider all covered populations and “ensure that the voices of the people that are most impacted are reflected in the plans.”
The Think Tank also included two Lightning Discussions with seven experts.
Lightning Discussion 1: Digital Equity Champions and Government Change Makers
- Oneisha Freeman, Georgia Technology Authority
- Katharine Hayward, National Endowment for the Arts
- Cristen Reat, Easter Seals of Greater Houston
Lightning Discussion 2: Intersectional Inclusion & Accessibility Experts
- Reyma McCoy Hyten, Disability Activist
- Carlos Gutierrez, LGBT Tech
- Tess Elshoff, Ohio Secretary of State
- Maria Town, American Association of People with Disabilities
Breakout 1: Engaging State & Local Disability Ecosystems
Moderated by Katy Schmid, The Arc and Ann Zimmerman, NTIA.
Discussion highlights include:
- State Broadband Equity Plan creators must listen to people with disabilities and learn about the barriers they face when accessing technology.
- Public-private partnerships need to be strong and give disabled people clear guidance on ways to obtain and use technologies without cost or connection barriers.
- Established systems are difficult to navigate, and there should be resources that reduce barriers to entry. For example, a user should not just be signed up for an internet provider; they should receive support in using internet-enabled technologies once they have internet access.
Breakout 2: Defining & Sharing Model Digital Equity Best Practices
Moderated by Veneeth Iyengar, Connect Louisiana and Angela Thi Bennett, NTIA.
Discussion highlights include:
- Stakeholder engagement materials and platforms must be accessible and provide ways to collect input from the public.
- Clear communication is critical, and activities must be planned in ways that ensure people with disabilities and members of other covered populations are engaged.
- Tips and factsheets compiled from frequently asked questions could help State Digital Equity Plan creators learn from each other.
Breakout 3: Developing Visions & Plans for Digital Equity Grants
Moderated by Revati Prasad, Benton Institute and Brett Litzler, NTIA.
Discussion highlights include:
- Long-term plans must be implemented to ensure that covered populations can stay connected after the initial funding is used.
- Break out different demographic and disability categories in data collections to help states identify and address gaps that covered populations face.
- Everyone involved in digital equity work should use technology in inclusive ways to create opportunities and unite disparate groups.
Breakout 4: Building and Promoting Accessible Technology Design
Moderated by Susan Mazrui, AT&T and Susan Walters, NTIA.
Discussion highlights include:
- Accessibility must be a baseline requirement in all connection services, hardware, applications, and content used in State Digital Equity Programs. Programs should leverage new or existing accessibility policies, adopted standards, and procurement processes while continually tracking and auditing how accessible they are in practice.
- Budgets must include accessible technology programs and processes. State Digital Equity Plan creators should know that the costs are often lower than they might assume and consider how to fit accessible technology processes into their existing efforts.
- Digital Equity programs should leverage existing federal, state, and local technology accessibility resources and practices and apply them to broadband connectivity efforts.
- Accessible technology will help accommodate disabled people in all covered populations, but individual accommodations must also be widely available to those who request them.
Breakout 5: Training and Educating our Workforce
Moderated by Kyle Marinelli, National Association of Workforce Boards and Lucy Moore, NTIA.
Discussion highlights include:
- Human-centered design and listening to the lived experiences of people with disabilities are important ways to make things more accessible.
- States with successful programs and initiatives should share advice and lessons learned to motivate states that are earlier in their inclusion journeys.
- States need to know how to make their events accessible and inclusive for all attendees.
As noted, the Think Tank brought together stakeholders from organizations focused on federal and state policy, broadband access, disability inclusion, intersectional equity and more, including:
Administration for Community Living; American Association of People with Disabilities; AT&T; Benton Institute; Business Oregon; Cadmus Group; Center for Applied Special Technology; Coalition on Adult Basic Education; Connect Louisiana; Council of State Governments; Easter Seals of Greater Houston; Empire State Development; Georgia Technology Authority; Institute of Museum and Library Services; LGBT Tech; National Association of Workforce Boards; National Endowment for the Arts; National Governors Association; National Telecommunications and Information Administration; Ohio Secretary of State’s Office; Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology; Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship; Puerto Rico Broadband Program; Reyma McCoy Hyten LLC; State Exchange on Employment and Disability; State of the States in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Longitudinal Data Project of National Significance; The Arc; Transfr; U.S. Access Board; U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy; and Western Governors Association.
Lightning Resource Sharing
Before the Think Tank, participants were asked to come prepared with links to resources State Digital Equity Planners might find useful. Select links are included below.
Topic 1: Engaging State & Local Disability Ecosystems
- Art Spark Texas
- AT Act Programs
- Disability Resources for Kansas Jobseekers
- Find a Chapter of The Arc
- ILRU Directory of Centers for Independent Living (CILs) and Associations
- Inclusive Meetings: The Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s Community Living Summit
- Kansas Partnership for Accessible Technology
- NACDD – National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities
- State Councils on Developmental Disabilities
- State Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies | Rehabilitation Services Administration
- Vocational Rehabilitation | CSAVR | United States
- Lois Curtis Campus
Topic 2: Defining & Sharing Model Digital Equity Best Practices
- Internet for All FAQ on Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program
- Join the Community – National Digital Inclusion Alliance
- Services | Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation
- Washington State House Bill 1723
Topic 3: Developing Visions & Plans for Digital Equity Grants
- Lessons Learned In Workforce Innovation: How Six States Are Planning to Advance Digital Skills for Equitable Economic Participation – National Governors Association
- Leveraging the Digital Equity Act To Advance Digital Skills – National Governors Association
- SETDA | Leadership, Technology, Innovation, Learning
- Using Data to Advance Digital Skills: A State Playbook – National Governors Association
- Visions of Digital Equity | Benton Institute for Broadband & Society
- Western Governors’ Association
Topic 4: Building & Promoting Accessible Technology Design
- AT Act Programs
- Evaluating Web Accessibility Overview | Web Accessibility Initiative
- The Three Dimensions of Inclusive Design: Part One
- WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools
- Web Accessibility Color Contrast Checker – Meet WCAG Conformance
- Welcome to Raising the Floor
Topic 5: Training & Educating Our Workforce
- Create Accessible Meetings | Section508.gov
- Diverse Abilities and Barriers | Web Accessibility Initiative
- Home | Northstar Digital Literacy
- Oasis Connections Guide to Online Safety
Participants shared relevant links during the breakout sessions, including:
- Buy IT!—Your Guide for Purchasing Accessible Technology – PEATworks
- Checklist for an Accessible Virtual Meeting & Presentation – PEATworks
- Job Accommodation Network: Costs and Benefits of Accommodation
- Creating Accessible Materials – PEATworks
- Home Page | AccessGA
- Hosting Inclusive Meetings – PEATworks
- Making Documents Accessible – PEATworks
- State of Georgia ADA Coordinator’s Office
- 2023 AI in Hiring Think Tank Report – PEATworks
 Included links are for informational purposes only. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the U.S. Department of Labor, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement of same by the U.S. Government.