The broadband gap leaves behind people with disabilities, study finds
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Earlier this week, Vice President Kamala Harris was in South Carolina touting the Joe Biden administration’s push to expand affordable high-speed internet there with programs funded by the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Tens of millions of Americans still don’t have access to broadband internet, and the problem is particularly acute for people with disabilities. According to recent research from the Urban Institute, areas of the country with the highest share of residents claiming disability insurance were also lagging in internet access.
Jon Schwabish, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and co-author of the report, spoke to Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino about the findings. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Jon Schwabish: We expected that our finding would just reflect what we all know: that rural areas of the country tend to have less access or lower internet speeds than nonrural counties. And yet, what we found was that between counties that have higher rates of disability insurance receipt and counties that have lower rates of disability receipt, the gap between the broadband access between those two types of counties was 2.2 percentage points. And we thought that would drive the rest of the data. But actually, we also found that in nonrural counties, there’s still a gap between counties that have high disability receipt and lower disability receipt. That gap a little bit smaller, at about 1.2 percentage points, but still significant. It’s significant enough that the rural-urban broadband gap is not what drove the whole gap. We know there’s something else going on. What we’re trying to better understand is whether the move towards an online system is making it more difficult for people with disabilities to find and obtain the services that they need to support them in their daily living.
Meghan McCarty Carino: Do you have any theories about what might account for that gap?
Schwabish: We think part of it might have to do with infrastructure. We also think it may have something to do with differences in income and income inequality, as well as access to other types of services, and other types of infrastructure that people with disabilities simply don’t have or don’t have access to. But it’s something that we are exploring in more detail, because we know that broadband and internet access is so important for all of our daily lives. When a person, or a community, or a group of people don’t have access to the internet, those folks are being left behind.
McCarty Carino: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal set aside $65 billion to expand broadband access. How could this change things?
Schwabish: It’s going to change things, but I don’t know how long it’s going to take. We’re talking about millions of people who do not have sufficient access to the internet. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that in 2020, 23 million Americans did not have access to any internet service providers offering 100 megabytes per second. So if you think about trying to watch your favorite Netflix show, or your favorite show on Disney+, there are at least 23 million Americans who do not have the basic bandwidth that would enable them to clearly stream those shows. So part of the question here is equity concerns. Where are the new broadband lines going to be laid? How fast are they going to be laid? What areas of the country are going to be prioritized? And how is that going to impact the Social Security Administration’s disability insurance program? And who applies?
McCarty Carino: What about the promise of satellite internet? A lot of the challenge with broadband is that it takes so much physical infrastructure, and it costs a lot to lay down in in rural areas where there are fewer people to serve.
Schwabish: I think all of these technologies enable us to see and test and experiment with providing benefits and providing access points to people who need them. The question is, does a satellite internet provider enable people to have faster access through their computers? Or does it enable them to have faster access through their phones? And what are the implications for price? Because another thing that’s underlying all this is the price differences across different parts of the country, and we have to consider competition. How many service providers do you get to choose between when you are choosing your mobile cellphone plan or home internet provider? So considering the price implications and the price ramifications of having these different technologies is important, because we know that there is significant income inequality between people with disabilities and people without disabilities. How are public policies going to be put into place to assist the folks most in need?
McCarty Carino: What’s at stake here for the populations that you studied?
Schwabish: What I think many of us take for granted is our daily high-speed access to the internet. We’re leaving a group of people behind who, in some ways, are most in need of being able to apply for and receive these benefits. We are leaving behind their ability to talk to their doctors or use certain health-related technologies like blood pressure monitors that can be monitored remotely and telehealth visits. How do we provide these benefits and services in an equitable way to all Americans, not just those living in one particular part of the country, one particular socioeconomic status?
Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino
You can read the full working paper from the Urban Institute here.
Besides access to high-speed internet, we’ve covered a number of other ways that the increasing digitization of everything can present unique challenges to people with disabilities.
A couple of years ago, I spoke to Virginia Eubanks, a political science professor and author of the book “Automating Inequality” about how a newly introduced government app intended to make it easier to track home health care aides under Medicare wasn’t exactly working as hoped. In fact, it was causing big problems for many folks who rely on home health care aides.
One of her sources said the issues reflected a lack on input from people with disabilities and what they needed from these tools.
And last year, Kimberly Adams interviewed Josh Basile at the tech accessibility company accessiBe about his experience using assistive devices to navigate Cyber Monday sales. He pointed out how so many retailers are still missing basic accessibility features that make them useable for people with limited mobility or visual impairments, even if they do have access to high-speed internet in the first place.
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