Virtual work is becoming more commonplace, partly thanks to forced changes during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been a boon for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities who would otherwise struggle to work in an office environment. However, the ability to work remotely is dependent on high-speed broadband internet access, which isn’t always affordable for people with low incomes. The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) can help make broadband connectivity more affordable and expand access to remote work.
As large parts of the workforce and students transitioned to working remotely during the pandemic, it soon became clear that access to high-speed broadband was not universally available. Even when broadband access was available, the cost proved to be a barrier for low-income families.
While progress has been made, many people still cannot afford the broadband connection needed to effectively work remotely, especially in rural or low-income areas. The ACP helps by helping people with low incomes to afford broadband internet.
As high-speed connectivity became crucial during the pandemic, the government created the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) that later became the ACP. The ACP provides a discount for people with lower incomes on broadband internet connections as well as a discount on an internet-connected device.
Due to the program structure, such as the emphasis on consumer choice and protections for taxpayers from abuse of the program, analysis by the American Consumer Institute shows that the ACP has proven to be a cost-effective and successful government program that has led to more opportunities for underserved communities.
While the ACP is focused on low-income households and not specifically intended for people with disabilities, there is a relationship between disability and poverty. Individuals with disabilities have higher barriers to employment as well as higher healthcare costs, which eat into income that could be used on other necessities or could be disposable income. This is magnified in rural areas.
For people with disabilities, the ability to work from home can be life changing. Chronic illness and disabilities can make the day-to-day tasks involved in going into a workspace more difficult and can prove to be a barrier to employment altogether.
Working remotely eliminates some of these barriers and allows people to work in environments suited to their needs. This effect can already be observed as employment ratios among people with disabilities not only rebounded from the job loss during the COVID-19 pandemic but are higher now, likely due to the normalization of telework. While populations with disabilities are still more likely to be unemployed than populations without a disability, progress is being made. This is reflected in a 2.5% decrease in unemployment among disabled people as of 2022.
Expanding access to remote work to a broader range of people, including people with disabilities, through affordable broadband helps their economic outcomes and would benefit the economy. The Center for American Progress argues that removing obstacles to employment for disabled people would lead to economic growth through their entry into the workforce.
The issue of employment and disability is a complex one. Still, the increased employment rate since the normalization of remote work has shown that remote work can be part of the solution. By improving broadband affordability to underserved areas and communities, the ACP can help continue to trend towards greater employment opportunities for those reliant on remote work.
Trey Price is a technology policy analyst for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information, visit https://www.theamericanconsumer.org/ or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal.