Broadband for All Strategies Must Include People With Disabilities

 

TDI, a non-profit focused on advancing the voices of people who are deaf, hard of hearing, late-deafened, deaf-blind, and deaf with mobility issues in Information and Communications Technology, hosted its 24th biennial conference the week of July 26th. On July 29, 2021, Corian Zacher, Policy Counsel for State and Local Initiatives at Next Century Cities, joined a panel discussing broadband connectivity for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. The other panelists included Zachary Bastian, Manager of Strategic Alliances for Verizon; Shelley Blakeney, Director of Regulatory Affairs for T-Mobile; and Sarah Leggin, Director of Regulatory Affairs for CTIA. 

The pandemic united new and tenured advocates alike toward the common goal of ensuring that every person living in the United States has home broadband services and tools they need to benefit from high-speed connectivity. Centering people with disabilities in the conversation can ensure that this goal actually encompasses everyone

That means that the needs of people with disabilities cannot be an afterthought—planning new technological applications must centralize accessibility at the outset. 

Accessible features often become conveniences that benefit everyone. For example, closed captioning enables us to watch videos in crowded airports without headphones. Text messaging keeps us in constant communication with friends, coworkers, and loved ones. Screen readers allow us to listen to readings while completing other tasks. 

Designing systems without considering whether people with disabilities can also use them excludes important community members from accessing critical services. As accessible technologies become universally adopted, they must remain usable for the people who rely on them. 

Throughout the pandemic, numerous daily services online were forced to migrate online. The ease at which employers, schools, and healthcare providers were able to transition brought with it an admission that too many people with mobility disabilities have long been denied basic accommodations to universal platforms. 

As communities re-envision fellowship and economic resilience after the pandemic, transition plans must encompass people with disabilities’ needs. That is the only way to ensure that every community member has equitable opportunities to participate in a digital society.

Assistive technology often requires greater bandwidth. It is long past time to increase the minimum broadband speed from 25/3 Mbps. Even in households that do not use assistive technology, speeds at or below 25/3 are inadequate to support daily capacity demands. When resetting the broadband threshold, considering whether a given speed could support the technology that people with disabilities need to use online services is a critical benchmark for efficacy. 

Technology design impacts accessibility in numerous ways. People with disabilities have no other choice but to work around systems that have not been designed for them. Both public and private stakeholders have a role to play in shifting that balance by including people with disabilities in design at the forefront. 

Consulting with people with disabilities to ensure that designs encompass the breadth of experiences that different users have with technology is critical to enabling a more equitable and conscientious future. Including people with disabilities in universal broadband strategies enables policies that support everyone living in the United States. 

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