Digital Equity at OATS

Technology may be second nature for many people, but its ubiquity only underscores the disadvantages experienced by those who remain offline. 

The problem

Nearly 22 million American seniors do not have wireline broadband access at home. Digital disengagement not only limits access to essential public health information, social services, and digital healthcare services but can also lead to social isolation, which has been linked to negative health outcomes, reduced quality of life, and premature death. Research also shows disturbing correlations between digital disengagement and race, income, disability, health status, educational attainment, immigration, and rural residence.

The solution

The Digital Equity Act provides a historic opportunity to change the lives of older Americans by promoting and advancing digital equity for all. Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) from AARP is working alongside AARP State offices to provide guidance and resources to ensure state implementation of digital inclusion plans are age-friendly and sustainable, and help eligible older adults sign up for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a government benefit program that helps eligible low-income households pay for internet service and connected devices.

ACP Success Stories

After having to cancel her internet service because of the cost, Themla Hall learned about the ACP benefit through a Senior Planet class held at her local community center. “I had no income, but ACP came along just in time. It covers the full cost of my internet. I have no internet bill at all,” said Thelma.

Laura Garcia loves computers and technology but she lives on a fixed income and did not own a computer or smartphone of her own. That changed when Laura was introduced to the ACP benefit, which now allows her to connect with friends and family, and communicate online with her doctors and other healthcare providers.

After Frances Russel’s husband passed away, she began taking classes at her local community center. But when the pandemic hit, classes and church activities were shuttered and Frances found herself isolated and alone. Thanks to the ACP benefit, Frances has a new way to stay connected with her community.

Recent Reports Addressing Digital Equity

Fly Like an Eagle: Measuring Transformational Social Outcomes Among Seniors Using Technology

During the height of the COVID pandemic, civic leaders in New York City embarked on an extraordinary program to provide technology access, devices, and training to 10,000 older adults living in public housing.

This effort was conceived on an emergency basis, joining officials from multiple city agencies, executives from T-Mobile, and leaders from the nonprofit sector, who planned and implemented an emergency technology program of unprecedented scale to support low-income older adults. These technology assets were a critical resource for older New Yorkers, and they also provided a unique opportunity for learning more about the impact of such programs and what effect would they have on social engagement, symptoms of depression, or feelings of isolation.

The research shows the impact of having an internet-connected tablet and participating in technology training for older NYCHA residents. Participants in the study were more likely to:

  • Feel more connected to family and friends: 60% of participants in the study “strongly agreed” that receiving their tablet helped them to feel more connected with family members. 88% of participants who took the technology course said they felt more connected to family and friends.
  • Feel less depressed and lonely: Nearly twice as many seniors in the control group reported feeling depressed, compared to those who took the technology course.

Aging Connected: Exposing the Hidden Connectivity Crisis for Older Adults

In partnership with the Humana Foundation, OATS released a report that for the first time quantified the size and degree of the digital isolation crisis among seniors in the United States.

The report commissioned new research by two leading academics on the digital technology gap: John Horrigan from The Technology Policy Institute and Erin York Cornwell from Cornell University. Drawing on this analysis, and more than 15 years of applied learning, the report presents a detailed portrait of digitally disconnected older adults in America, touching on how many people remain offline, which demographics are disproportionately affected, and more.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Nearly 22 million American seniors do not have wireline broadband access at home, representing 42 percent of the nation’s over-65 population.
  • Technology is exacerbating social divisions and inequalities. OATS’ research found disturbing correlations between digital disengagement and race, disability, health status, educational attainment, immigration, rural residence, and income.
  • Poor broadband not only limits access to essential public health information, social services, and digital healthcare services like telehealth and apps that manage chronic conditions, but it can also lead to risk of social isolation.
  • Evidence shows that public-private partnerships can increase connectivity access and produce positive social outcomes as a result of increased digital engagement.