The unexpected shift to the remote workplace and classroom brought on by COVID-19 has left many families across the country with inequitable access to devices and technology infrastructure, a problem known as the digital divide. For students with disabilities, the digital divide is not only an issue of access to broadband and technological devices, but also about ensuring that the technology is inclusive for their needs.
Remote learning is especially challenging for students with disabilities who require specialized instruction and accommodations to access high-quality education, and the digital divide exacerbates this challenge.
If students with disabilities are not given the supports they need to learn with technology, then we will effectively be locking them out of the workforce and perpetuating a cycle of unequal treatment.
Throughout my career, I have worked to ensure that people with disabilities are served by our institutions and have the same opportunities as others to participate in education, the workforce, and our society. As governor of Pennsylvania, I invested millions in educational technology and led work to create model digital schools that would advance districts’ abilities to innovate and provide cutting-edge technologies in our schools. I have continued to advocate for equal treatment of people with disabilities, especially in the workforce, as the chair of the National Organization on Disability. Leaders cannot forget the importance of providing special education services to students, especially in the virtual or hybrid learning environments so many students are facing this tumultuous school year.
The digital divide continues to result in inequitable device and internet access — especially for people with disabilities. According to data from the Pew Research Center, Americans with disabilities are less likely to go online, less likely to have access to high-speed internet, less likely to have devices such as a smartphone, laptop computer, or tablet, and less likely to have a high degree of confidence in their use of technology. These barriers prevent students with disabilities from learning, honing their talents, and gaining the skills they need to enter an increasingly technology-focused economy. Another challenge is that frequently used technologies, like Zoom, are not made to be inclusive for people with disabilities. Studies have found that some disabilities make it difficult for users to orient themselves to online tasks like navigating websites and selecting results. With schools moving to digital learning during the pandemic, policymakers and leaders must understand and address the challenges facing students with disabilities as they navigate this mode of instruction.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that special education services are provided to public school students across the country. Despite this, the pandemic has disrupted student access to the specialized instruction, interventions, and accommodations provided through their Individualized Education Plans. Parents are stressed about the loss of learning and skills, with 53 percent of parents of students with disabilities feeling very concerned versus 40 percent of all parents.
Schools need to consider the unique needs of students with disabilities and prepare to serve them while also supporting parents to be better equipped as remote learning continues. Many companies have stepped up to make their technology more inclusive to workers with disabilities. Our schools must do the same and work towards a more inclusive design in hybrid or remote classrooms.
We must address the digital divide for students with disabilities, and make sure they are receiving the services they require and deserve. Congress has allocated $13.23 billion in CARES Act funding to help school districts manage challenges brought on by the pandemic, and more federal stimulus dollars must come. Schools and policymakers can start by evaluating their current practices for working remotely with students with disabilities. They must also ensure that families have access to the resources and services they need to help their child be successful and pursue their passions.
Barriers must be removed to ensure that students with disabilities have access to high-quality instruction that meets their unique learning needs. There is no time to waste.
Tom Ridge was the 43rd governor of Pennsylvania and first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security; he serves as board chairman of the National Organization on Disability.