Connections - 01.31.24

Getting Devices Into the Hands of Individuals With Disabilities

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For many Americans, digital devices are an important way to connect with family and friends, shop, work and learn. Yet, there is a huge “digital divide” between those who have access to devices and those who do not.

Individuals with disabilities make up almost one in five individuals in the United States. According to results from a Pew Research Center survey, these individuals are 19 percentage points less likely than their non-disabled peers to own a desktop or laptop computer and 16 percentage points less likely to own a smartphone. They are also three times as likely to say they do not use the internet (15% vs. 5%), even though they have similar rates of access to home broadband (72% vs. 78%).

Why Access to Digital Devices Matters

Far from being a luxury for the rich, digital devices like laptops and smartphones are essential tools in almost every aspect of 21st-century life. Tasks like paying bills, making doctor’s appointments, getting directions, making travel reservations, and taking classes, increasingly require the use of a digital device. This means walking to the library every time you need to go online or check your email isn’t practical anymore — people need their own personal devices.

Access to digital devices is also crucial to achieving employment equity. Aside from the obvious dilemma of needing the internet to apply for jobs, it is increasingly common for employers to require employees to join Zoom calls or check work email on their own personal devices. In fact, 83% of employers have some type of “bring-your-own-device” or “BYOD” policy — and many don’t provide devices for employees at all. Even entry-level jobs like grocery clerks or warehouse workers often require the employee to use their own digital device to check their work schedule and clock in for their shifts.

Personal digital devices are also becoming a predominant way for individuals with disabilities to access services. Lack of access to devices like laptops or smartphones significantly limits an individual’s freedom of choice and ability to receive support. This is especially true for individuals who live in rural areas, where the closest service provider might be 50 or 60 miles away.

Closing the Digital Divide

So what can be done to get more digital devices into the hands of individuals with disabilities? Several possibilities come to mind:

  • Explore resources local to you such as  Missouri Assistive Technology in Missouri and Access Technologies, Inc. in Oregon that offer device loans, assistance, and “recycle and reuse” programs.
  • Contact your state vocational rehabilitation (VR) office. Some VR offices set aside funds for purchasing assistive technology devices.
  • Get to know device loan programs and checkout systems at your local library or community center.
  • Conduct a grant search. The Disability Rights Fund (DRF), the NEC Foundation, and Microsoft are good places to start.
  • Check with local chapters of service organizations like Elks, Kiwanis, and Knights of Columbus that offer grant programs and assistance for individuals with disabilities.
  • Reach out to disability-specific organizations like the Association of Blind Citizens and the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation to see if they have funding available for the purchase of digital devices.
  • Ask about device and service discounts. For example, low-income individuals may be eligible for discounted telephone service plans through the federal Lifeline program. In addition, vendors like AT&T and Verizon may have special offers for veterans or other groups.

The Bottom Line

Access to digital devices like laptops and smartphones creates more opportunities for community involvement, employment, and independence for individuals with disabilities. Tapping into local resources and funding opportunities can help close the digital divide and get these devices into the hands of people who need them most.

Anna Spexarth is the Marketing & Communications Manager at SETWorks. At SETWorks, Anna is responsible for their marketing and communications efforts and is proud to be a part of empowering the disability service space today.