The coronavirus pandemic widened the digital divide among Houstonians, leaving thousands of low-income and disabled residents without computer or internet access, and unable to meet the drive to move daily tasks online.
It’s a divide the Mayor’s Office of People with Disabilities sought to lessen for its constituents through free laptop distribution and the city’s Internet Voucher Program.
“We need to be able to bring the technology to them so that they are able to continue their lives amid the pandemic,” said Nick Arnos, a senior communications specialist for MOPD.
Arnos said the Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Healthy Equity Response Team and MOPD partnered in November with Comp-U-Dot, a nonprofit organization that provides technology access and education to underserved youth in the Greater Houston and Galveston areas, to provide 1,500 free laptops to qualifying persons through its Computer Access Program.
These persons included low-income individuals over the age of 65, persons with a disability, person ages 16-24 who are not currently working or enrolled in school, or households with children under the age of five.
The H.E.R Task Force in December launched the city’s Internet Voucher Program, which provides a free year of internet service through Comcast’s existing Internet Essentials Program. Vouchers were distributed to people who met the same criteria to receive a free laptop in November.
Arnos said MOPD then partnered with the Area Agency on Aging, The Collaborative for Children, and Project Grad to distribute 1,500 vouchers by the end of December.
Arnos said people with disabilities, in general, are most likely to be lower income than households who don't have someone with a disability in them.. “These programs were aimed to help someone who might have a cell phone, but they might not be able to pay for a data plan. Or they might have an old computer that someone's given them, but they don't have internet at the house,” he said.
“We were very key on making sure that we could get this to our constituents." Arnos said. "People with disabilities and senior citizens who still need that same access that everyone else has and it's just been harder to get to them.”
More than 2 in 5 low-income families have limited access to a computer or the internet, according a recent report by the University of California Los Angeles’ Center for Neighborhood Knowledge.
“With COVID, we've kind of taken away that opportunity for people to utilize the free WiFi that different facilities have,” Arnos said. “People being at home throughout this pandemic are not wanting to risk their health because people with disabilities generally have higher comorbidities.”
“The shift online in everything from grocery shopping to accessing healthcare has been an additional barrier that Houstonians with disabilities have been forced to confront as a result of COVID-19,” said Gabe Cazares, Director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.
Arnos said the experience has been eye opening for him.
“I've learned a lot about Houstonians with disabilities and the different barriers that this community faces on a daily basis,” he said. “It's been really rewarding to know that our office did its part to help.”
Arnos said MOPD is currently working with the city’s Public Works Department to research grants that will continue to support persons with disabilities, especially families who have children with disabilities.
“Special education programs have been increasingly diminished in the school system throughout the pandemic and it's been harder for children with disabilities to get the same access to education that they've been receiving in previous years,” he said. “Our focus for 2021 is to find the grant money to continue to provide technology, internet, as well as other trainings or education platforms that we can offer to these families so that they can maintain the same standard of living and not fall behind.”
To learn more about MOPD and their programs visit https://www.houstontx.gov/disabilities/index.html.