The USA is one of the most digitally driven countries in the world, with more than 311 million internet users. Considering more than 40 million Americans have a disability, the importance of making the internet easily accessible to this demographic is clear.
People with disabilities in the USA are slightly less likely than those without to have daily access to the internet (roughly 75% compared to 87%). This is, in part, due to the challenges some disabled individuals face when using or even setting up an internet subscription.
Some of the potential barriers a person with a disability may face when it comes to internet access include:
Being able to afford a decent subscription.
Finding a plan that suits them.
Having the confidence to seek help.
Understanding and managing the process of connecting to and using the internet.
Becoming independent internet users regardless of impairments.
In this comprehensive guide, we look at how modern internet services and initiatives are helping to overcome these challenges. It covers:
Options available to disabled internet users.
Some ways programs are adapting to accommodate different disabilities.
The benefits and limitations of current programs.
Resources available to help disabled internet users get more from their digital experience.
What Internet Service Providers Offer Accessibility Programs and Features?
Many internet service providers offer at least some features to help with accessibility for disabled users in various ways. The government runs two core benefits to make it more affordable (more on those soon), but there are other organizations and companies working to make a difference in other ways.
AT&T is one of the biggest internet services in the US, and it also happens to be one of the most progressive in the accessibility space. The company accepts Lifeline benefits but goes further- offering special deals and packages for clients with speech, vision, hearing, and cognitive impairment. There are also innovative products and advice for mobility-restricted users.
The internet provider also runs a Cyber Aware program and has a great selection of educational resources designed to be accessible to everyone.
Sprint is an excellent source of support for those with speech and hearing impairments. The Sprint CapTel and WebCapTel caption live conversations in real-time- displaying the text on a landline monitor (provided free of charge) or tablet. There is also a version available for business purposes.
Another excellent feature at Sprint is the IP Relay. It makes it possible for deaf, deafblind, or speech-impaired users to have a conversation over the phone through an operator system.
US Cellular works with hearing aid-compatible devices and real-time text programs to make it easier for disabled users to communicate via phone and the internet.
Discounted and Free Internet for Disabled Users: What Services and Initiatives are Out There?
Cost may not be the leading concern for every disabled individual looking for an internet service, but it is a consideration for many. You may be wondering if there are any free internet initiatives for those with disabilities, and the answer is yes.
Some service providers offer free phones to low-income disabled customers. Others work with specialist-accessible devices and programs and include the equipment free of charge with the plans.
Most internet services are not free, but there are several programs and initiatives that reduce the costs for those with disabilities. The government is responsible for some, and nonprofit organizations are also active in supporting impaired internet users to access the services they need and feel confident using them.
What Programs Does the Government Offer for Disabled Internet Users?
The US federal government offers two programs that make internet access more affordable for those who need it. Disabled internet users are generally included in the people who can benefit from these services. Here is all you need to know about each one.
The Affordable Connectivity Program
One of the things holding many disabled Americans back from unrestricted internet access is the cost. A person’s disability may leave them unable to work or earn a salary that leaves spare money to pay high prices for top-tier internet access in their homes. The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is designed to change that.
It launched in 2021 as a follow-up on the Emergency Broadband Benefit launched by the government during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The principle is the same- discounts on internet subscriptions for low-income households, but the ACP is a complete and more permanent program.
The program works by subsidizing $30 of a person’s monthly internet bill (more for eligible parties who live on Tribal Land). Furthermore, more than 20 internet providers offer free internet for low-income disabled customers and anyone else who qualifies for ACP.
Another benefit of ACP is a $100 contribution towards an internet access device (restrictions apply). It is possible to request accessible equipment in line with your disability.
Affordable Connectivity Program benefit is available to anyone with a low income or who receives other state benefits. Based on these criteria, it can provide discounted or free internet for social security disability recipients and free internet for disabled seniors.
The Lifeline Program
Lifeline is another government program that makes internet access more affordable for disabled people and low-income individuals. Like ACP, it is available to disabled individuals to reduce the costs of their monthly subscriptions. Unlike ACP, Lifeline extends to phone packages.
Eligible users receive $9.25 towards their bill each month- either their phone or internet bill, but not both. To be eligible, a person must be able to prove their disability. It is also available to seniors and low-income households.
Any disabled internet user (or someone on their behalf) can apply for Lifeline benefits and the Affordable Connectivity Program at the same time, and the two can be used together.
It makes things a little easier because eligibility requirements are essentially the same, and if you receive one, you are automatically eligible for the other. That said, you will not automatically receive it, so you need to apply for both just to be sure.
What Proof is Required to Support Applications to ACP and Lifeline?
You need to provide some sort of documentation that proves your eligibility. If you are applying as, or on behalf of, a disabled individual, this would be an official letter stating the disability status.
Since people who already receive state benefits for their disability are eligible for ACP and Lifeline, documentation confirming that benefit would also be sufficient. Some examples include:
A summary of benefit payments
Approval or verification letter for your benefits
Your disability benefit award letter
If your income (household) is 200% or more below the Federal Poverty Guidelines, you can send proof of that instead.
How Do Applications and Accessibility Work for these Government Internet Programs?
The applications for Affordable Connectivity Benefit and Lifeline are simple by design. Once eligibility is established, applications can be completed online or by mail. A printable version of the form is available on the getinternet.gov website.
Disabled applicants can get support with the application process through the ACP Support Center by email or over the phone.
Once the application is approved, users must inform their chosen service provider and have the discount applied to their bills. Sometimes, there may be some secondary forms required by the service provider, but these are dependent on who you get your internet from.
Nonprofit Organizations and Disability Advocacy Groups in the Internet Space
There are also some nonprofit organizations working with internet providers and product developers to make it easier for disabled customers to find the best internet deals and affordable devices in their areas. Furthermore, there is fantastic support available for training, technical assistance, and enhancing digital literacy in a safe and accessible way.
EveryoneOn: Helping People Find Deals in Their Area
EveryoneOn streamlines the search for the best discounts and free internet for disabled individuals. The program also works with multiple organizations that sell low-cost devices to those who need them.
It is an easy platform to use. Just enter your ZIP code, tick the drop-down boxes that apply to you, and browse the deals in your area. EveryoneOn partners with many service providers to support a nationwide program supporting disabled and low-income individuals to access and learn more about the internet.
Human-I-T: Connecting People with Digital Training and Low-Cost Devices
Human-I-T is a program that works to support people in the digital drive- particularly people with disabilities, veterans, seniors, schools, and underserved families. The organization has an online store (there is also a physical store in Detroit) where eligible browsers can find discounted devices.
Another great feature of Human-I-T is the excellent online training program. There is a range of courses covering everything from how to set up your internet to advancing digital skills. They are designed to be easily accessible and confidence-building for everyone.
The organization also provides tech support for all customers who buy a Human-I-T device or service.
What Technologies and Devices are Making Internet Access Easier for Disabled Individuals?
A huge part of the disability-friendly internet revolution depends on technological developments and devices that make the practical side of using the internet easier. Luckily, this is an area that has come a long way already! Here are some of the devices and technology used to make the internet more accessible.
Alternative Input Devices
Instead of being limited to just a standard keyboard, mouse, or touch screen, disabled users now have many ways to interact with their devices. Computers currently have the most diverse alternative input devices for speech, sight, and hearing impairments- as well as some advanced technologies helping cognitively impaired individuals and those with learning disabilities interact more capably and confidently.
This type of assistive technology is game-changing for thousands of Americans. As it continues to advance and becomes more available, it could completely change the way people with disabilities experience the internet.
Screen Readers and Magnifiers
Screen readers and magnifiers help those with visual impairments read websites and participate in conversations through social media and instant messaging. Their uses go far beyond this, assisting in business as well as personal internet use.
In short, they take the information that is online and use AI technology to convert it into comprehendible and natural-sounding speech. These tools are available for free through state device programs and some charitable organizations.
Accessible Features for Browsers and Operating Systems
Web browsers and device operating systems are developed to include accessible features or at least be adaptive enough to accommodate some disabilities. Guidelines for accessible systems include keyboard-only navigation, compatibility with screen readers and other assistive technologies, and use of accessible interface design.
Adaptations for Impaired Individuals
Technology helps blind, deaf, and speech-impaired individuals use the internet. Real-time text translation, brail input pads, readers, and AI speech converters are just some of the devices and programs available.
More Emphasis and Information on Accessible Website Design
There is more information available now to website designers about how to make a page accessible. AccessiBe is one of the leading services supporting website owners in creating accessible pages, but sadly only around 2% of active US websites meet the standards.
WAVE is another free tool that helps people evaluate their website’s accessibility and make changes.
The Benefits and Limitations of Accessible Internet Programs
More inclusivity in the digital space
Freedom for disabled individuals to use the internet on their own
Support for carers and families
Easier access to helpful resources
More affordable internet deals for more people
Confidence building for disabled individuals online
Growing awareness of the accessibility issues
Lack of availability of technical support for disabled users
The limited reach of some disability-friendly programs
Expenses involved with some technologies
Insufficient awareness of the importance of these programs
Too many websites and companies that are incompatible with accessible programs
Ongoing costs can be unmanageable without support
Overcoming Barriers with Enhanced Digital Literacy and Support for Disabled Users
Part of what holds some disabled individuals back from using the internet to its full potential is a lack of digital literacy and technical skills. Although they are not alone in this, those with disabilities are amongst those most likely to require support in online learning.
There are several platforms available that offer courses for digital learning and online safety tips that are suitable for people with disabilities, their carers, and their families. Human-I-T is, again, one of the best sources of online learning, but there are many schools and organizations with resources for specific disabilities.
The Perkins School for the Blind has a curriculum dedicated to technology skills.
HKNC (Helen Keller National Center for DeafBlind Youths & Adults) also has a range of digital literacy services on and off campus.
Most states have department-led digital literacy training designed for disabled or impaired individuals. There are also many vocational courses people can take to enhance their digital skills further.
What Resources and Support Networks are Available Online for Disabled Individuals?
There are many excellent resources online that support disabled internet users. Here are just a few of the best.
Adaptech has put together an extensive knowledge database detailing the accessible features available through various service providers. The website also offers free downloads for helpful resources and discounts on assistive devices.
Knowability is a nonprofit organization that works toward equal access and support for disabled internet users. It runs community programs and raises awareness to help close the digital divide.
Human-I-T is an excellent source of support for disabled internet users. It not only provides low-cost devices and great internet deals, but it also offers tech support and digital training.
How Can Disabled Internet Users Improve their Digital Skills and Confidence?
Aside from the many great programs available, here are some strategic tips for improving digital literacy.
Connect with others having a similar experience to your own for support.
Apply for as many courses and tech benefits as you can.
Research assistive technology to learn more about your options.
Ask for support when you need it.
Join online forums and communities to discuss challenges and how to overcome them.
What Are the Standout Barriers to Break in Disability-Friendly Internet Access and Usage?
Arguably, the most significant obstacle in the accessible internet space is the lack of awareness. There are more than 350 million active websites in the USA, but only around 7 million use accessible features. Until more internet services understand and respond to the needs of disabled users, the obstacles they face will remain.
The Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTS is one of the organizations leading the charge for change, hosting conferences and seminars to raise awareness and teach influential advocates how to implement and deploy disability-friendly features.
Only through awareness and understanding in the digital industry can disabled individuals be fully empowered to use the internet freely. Advances in technology have certainly moved the needle, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.
In summary, there are many initiatives out there aiming to create a more inclusive and accessible digital world for those with disabilities. Government programs, nonprofit organizations, revolutionary tech developers, and partnered providers offering discounted products are all part of the change.
It is important for the digital industry and those who lead it to recognize the importance of inclusivity and take steps to create an internet environment where everyone is welcome.