Sara Bovat, MSW is the 2021-2022 Disability Policy Fellow at the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD), where she works on federal policy and legislative issues that impact people with disabilities and their communities. Sara has over 5 years of experience working with disability advocacy and health policy. Sara completed her Master’s at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration with a Health Administration and Policy certificate.

Redlining in the United States is alive and ongoing. The redlining of the 1930s turned entire neighborhoods into areas where home loans were difficult and costly to obtain. This evolved form of digital redlining makes broadband service equally difficult and costly to obtain.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation defines as digital redlining, a process through which “major network providers systematically exclude low-income neighborhoods from broadband service—deploying only sub-standard, low-speed home internet.”

Network providers’ inequitable broadband service and complacency to improve it in predominantly Black, low-income neighborhoods reflects institutional, implicit bias. People with disabilities already experience heightened, structural barriers of access to these utilities. Many people with disabilities are also people of color. Much of the disability community undoubtedly suffers from digital redlining.

While some have long argued for the internet to be treated as a public utility, the COVID-19 pandemic showed how essential a service it has become. It is essential for school, it is essential for work, it is essential for health and well-being, to pay bills, to schedule doctor appointments, to learn more about health symptoms, to monitor health, to plan transportation needs, and to maintain relationships. Broadband access drives physical, social, and economic health. Broadband access in itself is a social determinant of health.

By neglecting these basic utilities that are necessary to live, we are only deepening Black, low-income households’ likelihood to be stuck in the poverty cycle and suffer from the compounding effects of this oppression, including disabled Black populations. With less broadband access, lower-income, disabled Black households are less likely to be informed about their job schedules, medical updates, and educational resources. Today’s digital redlining is another intentional, racist form of discrimination that explicitly harms Black communities. A moral debt is owed.

We need drastic action.

Broadband access is one of many key components of the recently announced $3.5 trillion infrastructure and budget reconciliation spending package. It will offer affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to everyone, including the more than 35 percent of Americans in rural areas who lack access to broadband at minimally acceptable speeds.

On July 13th, Senate Majority Leader Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced an agreement on a blueprint for a spending package that includes many parts of Presidents Biden’s Jobs and family plan. It serves as a companion for the bipartisan infrastructure bill that will invest $579 billion in new spending over five years on improving broadband as well as roads, bridges, public transit, airports, and water and power infrastructure.

Similarly, on July 1, 2020, the House of Representatives passed the Moving Forward Act (H.R. 2), which would deploy $80 billion strong provisions on broadband access to currently unserved areas. The bill also creates opportunities for better jobs, making broadband services more affordable, ensuring access to digital classrooms, as well as establishing a new Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth as part of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

The digital divide was significant before March 2020, and without policies with broadband access requirements, inequities will only persist for disabled, Black communities. Critical action needs to be taken to reach out to every member of Congress to express how vital the Senate bipartisan infrastructure bill is, particularly for the disabled, Black community.