Monday, May 15, 2017

Disability and the Digital Divide: A Different Discussion

By Kristen Pedersen, MPH, VP Education and Workforce Inclusion, The Arc San Francisco

(Photo l-r: Tania Estrada, The Women’s Building; Winnie Yu, Self-Help for the Elderly; Josh Peters, Bay Area Video Coalition)
Most of us take the internet and being constantly connected for granted. Whether ordering dinner online, applying for a job, or refilling a prescription, broadband, high-speed access is critical to everyday life. But many San Franciscans are left off the grid when it comes to internet access—particularly residents with developmental disabilities.  And as tech usage continues to grow, so does the gap in access.
How do we close this digital divide so that everyone has what they need to be connected?

Thanks to our friends at the San Francisco Public Library, I was part of a panel that convened recently during “Digital Inclusion Week” to look at new strategies for better access.
(See video.)

One of the biggest barriers among the individuals with autism, Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities whom we support at The Arc San Francisco is a lack of digital literacy, access to materials and the funds to have data plans or in-home internet. At The Arc, we started a small computer lab at our main campus several years ago, but only when we added classes in Email Basics, How To Search and Internet Safety did we see our clients using the internet in a way that was useful.
With that success, we began to integrate Online Job Search, Creating a Professional Profile and Applying for Employment Online to our suite of computer classes and trainings.  With funding from Comcast NBC Universal, we expanded our class offerings and upgraded our computers.

Today, all of our clients, from young transition age students to retired seniors, are learning to access the information they need to stay connected, engaged and in charge of their own lives. The experience has been life-changing for many of our clients:

  • Tom is able to go online and find free weekend events. He used to stay home most weekends, isolated. But now he checks out free concerts at Golden Gate Park and free movies at the library.
  • Mai has created her LinkedIn profile to complement her new resume so that she can network for the job of her dreams—in a downtown office where “...everyone has important work to do.”
While an estimated 10% of Americans have no way to access the internet, almost 50% of people with developmental disabilities have fallen through the digital divide. But as our City expands its infrastructure for more connectivity, organizations like The Arc SF and the San Francisco Public Library are critical to support the closing of the gap. And we will continue to champion people like Tom and Mai so that they have the skills and experience needed to fully participate in today’s digital world.

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