Digital access is an equity issue

September 8, 2021

“Those who access and need our government services expect and deserve usability,”

said Kendrick Stewart, Washington Department of Commerce’s deputy director.

In a public performance review meeting on July 28, 2021, the deputy director went on to say that according to agencies that provide direct services to the public, those who are most likely to have technical barriers to service delivery are older individuals, people experiencing poverty, and people of color.

Though we operate on the belief that it should be easy for everyone to find what they need, our state’s websites are not designed to include everyone’s user experiences. People with disabilities, English language learners, and those who lack digital skills are often left out. And barriers to digital access ultimately put stability, health, and futures at risk.

The meeting was a part of a monthly series from Results Washington, an initiative established by Governor Inslee to take steps to resolve problems across the state by learning from those most impacted by them. July’s presentation focused on the goal of “Economic Recovery Post COVID-19: Social Safety Net & Digital Equity” and how state government websites and forms can develop best practices for inclusion.

Katie Lewis, an employment case manager for the Family Resource Center at High Point, was invited to the meeting to talk about their client’s experiences with digital inequities. Katie runs Neighborhood House’s Ready to Work (RTW) program, offered throughout Seattle via a partnership between the city and non-profit community partners, to teach English to low-income community members seeking to broaden their employment or education opportunities.

Katie explained that of the clients who participate in the RTW English classes, 70% do not own a personal computer and 90% need hotspots or other tech supports to participate fully in class. (Though students are loaned computers for the class, they are expected to return them.) Clients also need to access many state benefits online – social safety nets ranging from food stamps to unemployment insurance. While trying to start their applications or find the appropriate person to direct their questions to, they frequently run into issues due to the digital divide. 

For example, when the job search requirement was reinstated as a condition of receiving unemployment benefits, many clients were not aware that they should be looking for employment or keeping track of their search activity. Katie worked with their students to explain how to screenshot recent job searches to send to the state, starting with putting together instructions on what a screenshot is and how to do it based on the computer being used. 

So how do we bridge the divide? Using their experiences as a case manager working with community members during COVID-19, Katie recommended the following to the audience and Governor Inslee himself. Making sure there are staff available to walk customers through the entire process, instead of sending a link only. Screen sharing to look at the same documents at the same time. Having websites that use easy-to-understand pictures and icons as links, over long text. Creating how-to videos in multiple languages that demonstrate the application processes. 

When the pandemic broke out, the number of people eligible for public benefits skyrocketed. Getting the services needed became even more difficult because government offices that served customers closed. So did public areas such as libraries where free computers could be used. In order to recover equitably from COVID-19, the needs of those who are furthest from access need to centered, and we need to provide the tools and services that fit them best going forward.

Watch the entire meeting presentation.

Learn more about the initiative.