Susan Menhard, Career Academy Director: Use technology to unite rather than divide

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As the Spring 2020 Career Academy Course commenced, a new group of job seekers with disabilities gathered at the Starkloff offices for another round of resume building, mock interviews and informative presentations by local human resources professionals and experts in disability employment. Roughly halfway through the curriculum, however, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, drastically altering the composition of our class.

With stay-at-home orders in place and offices closed for the foreseeable future, the SDI staff scrambled to transform a highly interactive, hands-on course into a virtual learning environment everyone could access. It proved more difficult than I ever would have imagined.

A class that initially included seven participants soon dwindled to two, as a lack of home computers and high-speed internet prevented many candidates from accessing the course materials remotely. By the end of the spring session, only one participant had the necessary resources to satisfy all course requirements and successfully graduate.

The “digital divide,” the ever-widening gap between those who have access to broadband internet and information/communication technologies and those who do not, is a phenomenon I had heard about for years, but this was my first time witnessing its devastating impact firsthand. Underserved populations and those living in poverty are hardest hit by the digital divide, a trend that is clearly reflected in our own community.

According to the American Community Survey released by the Census Bureau in 2018 of approximately 36,000 households in North St. Louis, 44% report having no internet connection. As of 2018, 22.1% of St. Louis residents live below the poverty line, a figure that significantly exceeds the state-wide rate of 13.2%. The poverty rates are even higher among people with disabilities, approaching 25—30% for males and females, respectively.

We already know that the Disability Community faces a higher unemployment rate than any other minority group. It’s why we’re so dedicated to preparing disabled jobseekers and helping them find lucrative career opportunities. In a time when diversity and inclusion are supposedly prioritized in the workplace and the bottom-line benefits of disability hiring are widely documented, disability unemployment still hovers at a rate that more than doubles that of nondisabled individuals.

A 2018 report from Accenture says that if the number of people with disabilities in the workforce increased by only 1%, it could represent a growth in domestic product of up to $25 billion. But we’re unlikely to achieve this ambitious benchmark without a corresponding boost in digital access and literacy.

So the digital divide keeps people in a vicious cycle of disadvantage, a fact that’s only been magnified by this pandemic. How do you conduct a job search in 2021 without access to the internet? How do you complete an online application without access to a computer or any other web-enabled device? We’re all avid proponents of professional networking, but it’s an extreme disadvantage when sending an email or creating an account on LinkedIn are not viable options.

January is National Poverty in America Awareness Month, a time to recognize that we still have a ways to go in terms of creating a world that is economically just and equitable. And if we don’t do something to address the growing digital divide in our society, the chasm between the haves and the have nots will only broaden.

Bridging the digital divide and eradicating poverty are complex societal challenges that require strategic and collaborative responses at the nonprofit, corporate and government levels. St. Louis County recently used $4 million in CARES Act funding to ensure all students would have access to Wi-Fi hot spots and Chromebooks for virtual learning.

Through its Digital Education Grant Program, part of a $1-million commitment to promoting digital literacy in the communities it serves, Spectrum supports organizations like the OASIS Institute, a nonprofit providing technology training to older adults. But regardless of age, people with disabilities often need some sort of assistive technology to stay connected, a fact that is frequently overlooked when these initiatives are devised.

Although we’ve made progress in recent years, there are still many Americans living in the margins of society, unable to gain a foothold in a technologically advancing world. They need equal access to resources, and the digital divide is just another example of this. Technology should unite us rather than divide us, so I believe we are all under a collective civic mandate to close this gap once and for all.

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