The growing benefits of broadband for Americans with disabilities

First and foremost, it is critical that new and existing technologies are available and affordable to all Americans. According to the FCC’s recently released National Broadband Plan, merely 42 percent of people with disabilities have a home broadband connection, compared to the national average of 65 percent. We are encouraged by many of the recommendations in the plan, such as the creation of a Broadband Accessibility Working Group (BAWG) to maximize broadband adoption by people with disabilities. But the success of the plan’s recommendations will be measured by how effectively they are implemented. We hope the Commission will be as dedicated to effectively executing these key initiatives as they were when crafting the Plan.

People with disabilities have a tremendous amount to gain from broadband adoption. With a home broadband connection, we can telecommute, start businesses, take classes online, receive in-home medical care and connect to resources in our communities.   recent study by Mobile Future revealed that in March 2010, the unemployment rate was nearly four points higher for individuals with disabilities compared to those without a disability. With this in mind, applications that help to level the playing field for economic opportunity are essential.

Today, text-to-speech applications enable those who are blind or have low vision to read e-mails and work documents. Internet relay chat and Video Relay Service are helping deaf and hard of hearing adults to communicate with voice telephone users. These technologies facilitate more participation in workplace activities. Broadband adoption also allows more people with disabilities to telecommute from their homes, creating increased employment opportunities for those with limited mobility. An estimated 29 percent of Americans with disabilities would join the workforce if telecommuting were a viable option.  

While assistive technologies clearly benefit the disabled workers who employ them, the utilization of these services also benefits the workforce and our economy at-large. Merely a single percentage point increase in employment rates of the disability community would yield over $11 billion in economic output over the next twenty years. 

Recent technological advances have also helped solve some of the day-to-day challenges that adults with disabilities face. Those who have low vision can take advantage of new applications that use smartphone cameras to read and announce labels on groceries and prescriptions. The Georgia Technical Research Institute is designing “location-aware” systems for public places like hospitals, museums and airports. The systems would send relevant information through audio, video and text to provide information about the location. Such innovations not only benefit those with disabilities, but others as well.

In order to ensure that such transformative technologies continue to be developed, it is imperative that policymakers preserve a regulatory climate that fosters investment and innovation. Voice recognition technology, screen readers and countless other cutting-edge applications have created new opportunities for individuals with disabilities, but we cannot stop here. Investment in broadband deployment and innovative tools will be critical to the invention of the next game-changing application. We hope that the FCC will continue to promote policies that incentivize investment and the development of the next generation of assistive technologies.

Anita Shafer Aaron is the executive director of the World Institute on Disability (WID).