Digital Equity Champions for All Learners: How The Arc Advances Digital Skills for Individuals with Disabilities and Their Families

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This article was written and published by the Office of Educational Technology.

The Arc is the largest and oldest national non-profit that promotes and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). As part of that mission, they are working to ensure technology can unlock opportunities for individuals with IDD and their families. Founded in the 1950s by parents who knew their children with disabilities deserved greater community involvement, meaningful relationships, and opportunities to succeed, The Arc and its nearly 600 chapters in 48 states and Washington, DC advocate for equitable policies and operate programs in employment, housing, criminal justice, environmental and physical health, transition and future planning, travel, technology, and other areas.

Individuals with disabilities face numerous challenges that hinder them from using technology to improve their quality of life. This includes lack of access to broadband and devices, digital tools with inaccessible interfaces, lack of digital skills and safety awareness, untrained caregivers, and lack of support and resources required to overcome these challenges.

Due to the prevalence of technology in learning and everyday life, The Arc, in collaboration with Comcast NBCUniversal, recently expanded their initiative to support the acquisition of digital skills. Since 2017, The Arc established nearly 30 Tech Coaching Centers across the country. These centers offer programs to help thousands of individuals with disabilities achieve personalized goals by providing in-person, individualized 1:1 skills coaching at no cost and free online resources. They are also working on establishing new centers so everyone has access to this vital support.

In an interview with the Office of Educational Technology, Katy Schmid, senior director of national program initiatives at The Arc, emphasized that it is critical for the Tech Coaching Centers to be flexible by continuously evaluating the community’s and individual’s needs, rather than prescribing a one-size-fits-all support model. “For example,” she said, “I might be working with a community that has technology already available to them, so we have to think how…to address all the other gaps that they may have. [On the other hand,] we are working with chapters in rural areas and so…if we’re training somebody on [how to use] mobile technology, how will they take advantage of those skills when they leave our center? The hope is that the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) might be able to assist.” Soon, The Arc’s chapters will begin a program funded by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that will share information about how eligible households can enroll in ACP.

The Arc regularly reviews barriers to ensure its programs are adaptive to their communities’ needs. Based on a recent analysis of feedback, The Arc determined that if caregivers are not involved in the Tech Coaching program, it is much less likely that the individual with disabilities will fully adopt new technologies and sustain their skills. Therefore, in 2023, The Arc will also be extending its 1:1 coaching to include the caregivers of the individuals receiving services.

Based on her experiences at The Arc, Schmid shared three key lessons for leaders to support individuals with disabilities navigate digital equity issues:

  • Partner with organizations across your community, including private sector leaders, to amplify the reach of your programs.
  • Get to know the unique needs of the community to determine appropriate strategies and desired outcomes.
  • Engage with families and caregivers to support long-term success.