January 28th, 2013

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Expanding Broadband Access Key to Improving Opportunities for People With Disabilities


A group of academic researchers is proposing national programs to provide broadband Internet access to people with disabilities, arguing that such an investment would help these individuals reach their potential and ultimately reduce the taxpayer’s burden for the funding of social support programs.

According to the press release found on the ScienceDaily website, four researchers presented findings from a study on broadband access for people with disabilities at the annual convention of the Pacific Telecommunications Council, held last week in Honolulu, Hawaii. The study looked at broadband for the Pacific region’s four most developed countries — Australia, China, Japan, and Korea — as well as the United States. The quantitative data alone demonstrated a wide chasm between households with and without individuals with disabilities:

In the United States, only 54 percent of the 16 million households where someone has a disability have a computer, compared to about 80 percent of nondisabled households. Only 43 percent of households that include a person with a disability have broadband access, while 72 percent of nondisabled households are subscribed to broadband services.

The researchers attributed the gap first and foremost to a lack of awareness about the benefits of broadband among these households, with cost and adequate technology also playing a role. They suggested that public-private partnerships would be the most effective way to eliminate these barriers, taking advantage of the production and distribution networks of private businesses and the ability of government to conduct multiple grassroots efforts across a nation simultaneously.

Krishna Jakayar, an associate professor of economics at Penn State University and the team’s spokesperson, cited South Korea’s successful push to increase technology literacy among its elderly population as an example of the kind of partnership they envision. People with disabilities would be better served if they had the means and education to use online technologies to gather information about their conditions, both medically and in locating and communicating with support services in their communities.

Such an initiative would be win-win for businesses as well, says Jayakar, expanding customer base for broadband services and all the Web-based entities who use it for commerce. With more than 50 million people with disabilities in the United States alone, the potential to increase market share is vast. Jayakar also notes that this would all happen with no disruption to services for existing customers:

There is a marketing advantage in adding accessibility features to products in the mainstream market, which can make them more attractive to the general consumer, even as they help people with disabilities, which can help them more fully participate as both citizens and consumers

Other researchers on the team include Gary Madden, professor of economics, Curtin University; Chun Liu, associate professor of economics and management, Southwest Jiaotong University; and Eun-A Park, assistant professor of communication, film and media studies, University of New Haven.

Share your thoughts in the comments on how better access to broadband technology would make life matter more for people with disabilities.

Image by cogdogblog (Alan Levine).

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