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Thriving in Place in the Community Empowered
San Francisco
Technology Needs

Bridging the Digital Divide for San Francisco Residents with Disabilities & Older Adults

Photo of four individuals in a series celebrating disabled Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC). One person is holding a chalkboard board that says, "Digital Equity!".

Photo and description provided by Disabled and Here: of four individuals in a series celebrating disabled Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC). One person is holding a chalkboard board that says, "Digital Equity!".

Download the Report for the 2021 Empowered San Francisco Technology Needs Assessment:

View the Report (PDF)

Executive Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more important than ever to ensure that all residents have access to the internet. The pandemic showed us that the internet is no longer a luxury — but rather is a vital tool for residents to access information, services, and to participate equitably in today's digitally connected society. Despite being widely recognized as a leader in the technology sector, San Francisco has historically lagged behind in providing equal access to technology resources and services for its residents.

For many people with disabilities, older adults and multiply-marginalized communities, the pandemic has intensified these already-existing gaps, and has made it acutely difficult to access information, services, and connections online. This reveals a troubling public health and social justice issue that can no longer be ignored. There is a clear unified call from disability and aging advocates to establish the "internet as a utility," which provides an important opportunity to think of the internet as public infrastructure rather than a luxury or commodity.

"It shouldn't take a global pandemic to make our culture more accessible to disabled folx. But now that we've seen how beneficial remote, virtual, and accessible options for school, work, healthcare, and social events have been to our communities, let's ensure they continue. And we need to continue to expand access to technology which makes remote options possible to BIPOC, low-income, and other multiply marginalized disabled people."

(Sininvalid @sinsinvalid, social media post excerpt, October 2021)1

To respond to this critical issue, Thriving in Place (TIP) conducted a city-wide survey to understand the technology barriers and needs of San Francisco residents with disabilities and older adults (ages 60+) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Results of this survey will be shared with the Department of Disability and Aging Services (DAS) and the Mayor's Office on Disability (MOD) to help inform the City's strategy for bridging the digital divide and increasing the accessibility of digital programs and services.

Through the help of over 60 community-based organization partners, we administered a citywide survey to over 3,080 stakeholders, conducted 40 in-depth interviews and 9 focus groups.

The Survey Focused on 7 Key Areas:

  • Access to Internet, devices, and assistive or adaptive technology (AT)
  • Access to services during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Technology barriers, challenges and opportunities
  • Familiarity using internet and devices (digital literacy)
  • Use of technology for social engagement
  • Access and barriers to health information and services during the COVID-19 pandemic (telehealth)
  • Recommendations for improving access to technology

The survey also included 11 demographic questions to ensure that the City was reaching a representative sample of San Francisco residents.

To ensure language access, the survey was provided in six languages (English, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Tagalog and Vietnamese) and in multiple accessible formats (large-print, Braille, and phone-based).

Community Advisory Coalition and Community Partners:

In the spirit of "Nothing About Us, Without Us" this needs assessment was guided by a 14-member Community Advisory Coalition composed of a diverse group of Deaf and Disabled community members, non-profit disability and aging cultural workers, veteran and unhoused community advocates, and transition-age youth.

Meet the Community Coalition & Partners

Key Findings & Policy Recommendations

Summary of Key Findings

Throughout this process, we engaged thousands of San Franciscans who faced significant technology challenges. Results of the survey, focus groups, and in-depth interviews uncovered significant evidence that there is an urgent need to close the digital divide in San Francisco. The fact that 64% of 1,529 survey respondents reported that technology was a barrier in accessing needed services during COVID-19, underscores how urgent this issue is.

Key Findings

  1. Access to technology was a vital resource in receiving various COVID related public services and information, as well as maintaining social connections during the pandemic.
  2. A significant majority (64%) reported that technology was a barrier in receiving needed pandemic services. Technology was a vital means of receiving COVID-related information and needed public services, particularly health, food, and housing assistance. Four of the top five primary sources used to access information about services during COVID-19 were technology-based (telephone calls, television, social media and text messages). Sixty-two percent (62%) reported attending online social activities., and 27% attended a social activity once a month. Without adequate technology resources, many residents felt they would be "left behind" and not be able to access critical services, information and support.
  3. Affordability, unreliability, and concerns about online security were reported to be primary barriers to accessing the internet.
  4. A majority of survey respondents pointed to the cost of the internet and devices as core barriers to accessing the internet. Not enough smart phone data, unreliable internet connection, and concerns over online security and safety were reported among the top five barriers.
      The top five barriers to internet access were:
    • unaffordable cost of high-speed internet (28%);
    • unaffordable cost of device (27%);
    • insufficient smartphone data (22%);
    • unreliable internet connection (21%);
    • and concerns about online safety/security (19%).
  5. There are digital challenges that go beyond access to devices and the internet.
  6. While access to devices and the internet are vital to digital inclusion, there are barriers that cannot be solved by access alone. Lack of accessibility of digital content and services was a key issue that was raised by focus group participants. The need for free or low-cost assistive technology (AT) was another key barrier raised by respondents.
  7. During the pandemic, receiving medical services through telehealth (phone and video) was both vital and presented some challenges for residents with disabilities and older adults.
  8. A large majority, 67%, of survey respondents reported receiving medical services through telehealth. The top reported challenges with telehealth center around device affordability, followed by training, and receiving information. Providing telehealth services in various languages, particularly in Spanish and Cantonese, is important in providing inclusive access to telehealth. Moreover, survey results revealed that particular attention is needed to ensure that telehealth services are accessible to the following groups: older adults (ages 60+), low-income households (earning less than $20,000), and BIPOC communities (specifically, Black, Latinx and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander).
  9. Receiving telehealth services was particularly difficult for Latinx/Hispanic/Latin-American community.
  10. While overall survey data showcased that 67% of survey respondents received medical services through telehealth and 30% did not, data from people whose preferred language is Spanish showed reversed results. Based on a pool of 110 Spanish-speaking respondents who answered the survey question, 52% reported not receiving telehealth services and 38% cited that they did. Latinx/Hispanic/Latin-American community during the pandemic.
  11. Providing free or low-cost assistive or adaptive technology (AT) and AT training would be helpful in making AT more accessible.
  12. Results show low-cost AT as the primary need (53%, 659), followed by training (45%, 564), then information about available AT options (39%, 485), and lastly, access to free or low-cost repairs (30%, 379).
  13. The need for Assistive Technology (AT) services (such as affordable AT equipment and training) was greater for certain communities who have historically lacked equitable access.
  14. The need for AT services was greater for residents who are: older adults (ages 60+); people experiencing either chronic pain or a mental health disability; low-income residents (less than $20,000); residents living in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels; Black, Latinx, and AAPI communities; monolingual (Spanish or Cantonese); and residents who lack access to devices and internet.
  15. Public computer labs such as public libraries, community centers, or tech labs served as important sources of internet for the disability community prior to the pandemic, particularly for transition-age youth (ages 18-26), veterans, and people experiencing homelessness.
  16. 67% of transition-age youth reported using public computer labs. 82% of people residing in assisted living/care homes or those experiencing homelessness use public computer labs. 82% of veterans also reported using computer labs as primary sources prior to the pandemic.
  17. The importance of safe, secure and centralized public computer labs are essential technology services.
  18. Not only are public computer labs primary sources of free internet and devices, they also serve as safe spaces to use devices. Focus group data showcased that individuals with a history of homelessness and/or having a mobility disability visit public computer labs in their neighborhoods to safely use their devices. Public technology hubs were also reported to be especially important since owning smartphones and tablets made people more at risk of having those devices lost or stolen.
  19. Customized digital literacy services are necessary for a community with varied digital knowledge and experience.
  20. Digital literacy and computer training appeared within the top 5 needed services during the pandemic. Lack of language access in digital literacy training was also cited as a top barrier for older adults whose primary language is either Cantonese or Spanish. For focus group participants with a history of being disconnected to systems of care (individuals with a history of chronic homelessness or justice-involved) reported incredible hardships in using technology, as extreme as not even having any idea of what WiFi is.
  21. Lack of access to the internet is a barrier to employment and academic success.
  22. Focus groups revealed that many residents with disabilities routinely face barriers to accessing employment remotely due to unreliable internet. When we asked transition-age youth with disabilities about how internet access impacts their education and employment, they mentioned that having limited internet access makes communicating with teachers and employers challenging, resulting in not being able to attend a GED class, or to show up for work on time. Without reliable internet access, many people with disabilities of all ages are cut off from participation in the workforce.

Overview of Policy Recommendations

Based on conversations with stakeholders, CBO community leaders and the Community Advisory Coalition, we identified 10 policy recommendations to improve digital equity in the City and County of San Francisco. An expanded list of policy recommendations can be found in the full report.

Policy Recommendations

  1. Prioritize improving free or low-cost digital connectivity for residents with disabilities, older adults, and multiply-marginalized communities.
  2. There is a clear unified call from disability and aging advocates to establish the "internet as a utility," which provides an important opportunity to think of the internet as public infrastructure rather than a luxury or commodity.
  3. Develop a centralized hub to build awareness around existing digital inclusion programs, free or low-cost internet, devices and Assistive technology (AT), and digital skills training.
  4. Although San Francisco has a robust portfolio of digital inclusion programs, there is a clear need to increase awareness and education around these vital technology resources, and to create centralized hubs for information, referral and assistance.
  5. Develop pipelines to increase funding and distribution of free or low-cost Assistive or Adaptive Technology (AT) in partnership with public technology labs.
  6. Assistive Technology (AT) is an essential part of ensuring digital equity for residents with disabilities, and greater resources are required around AT device distribution, training, and repairs.
  7. Increase digital accessibility standards for remote services, programs and events across the city of San Francisco.
  8. Launch a citywide digital accessibility program aimed at ensuring that virtual events, information and digital services are fully accessible for people with disabilities.
  9. Boost investment in digital literacy programs, with a particular focus on language access, accessibility, and cultural relevance.
  10. Create and implement measures to ensure that employment opportunities and accessible workplace technology are available for residents with disabilities.
  11. We are proposing to develop new funding models to boost employment and financial pipelines for people with disabilities, including transition-age youth (18-26), youth experiencing chronic homelessness, and multiply-marginalized low-income disabled people who face significant barriers to employment.
  12. Pilot initiatives aimed at lowering barriers to telehealth access in partnership with affordable and supportive housing communities to equip residents with internet access, telehealth tools and digital literacy skills.
  13. Invest in digital equity programs and community-led solutions for transition-age youth with disabilities (18-26), youth experiencing chronic homelessness and youth in the foster care system.
  14. Develop digital stewardship models to include community members with disabilities, older adults and other disproportionately affected people and communities in the designing, building, and evaluating of digital equity solutions.
  15. Continue to develop the Bay Area Regional Digital Equity Consortium to advance local, regional and statewide Digital Equity efforts and common alignment of policy recommendations.
  16. Roll-out recommendations and manage the implementation of urgent initiatives that address the needs and barriers of San Francisco residents with disabilities and older adults.
  17. We are urging City policymakers to actively work towards enacting these short- and long-term recommendations proposed by the 2021 Empowered San Francisco Technology Needs Assessment.

Resources & Outreach Toolkit:

Download the report for the 2021 Empowered San Francisco Technology Needs Assessment:

View the Report (PDF)

View an accessible and screen-reader friendly PDF version of the report. For accessibility, we included an interactive table of contents to navigate the report sections, as well as optimized the report for screen-reader users.

Explore the Raw Data Set

Explore the full data set of the 3,080 survey responses from the 2021 Empowered San Francisco Technology Needs Assessment. We are making the raw data publicly available in an effort to increase transparency, accountability and to promote more in-depth analysis of the data findings.

Download Data Set (Excel)

Powerpoint Presentation

View the Powerpoint presentation that includes an overview of the research methodology, key findings and policy recommendations.

Download Powerpoint (PDF)

American Sign-Language Introductory Video (ASL Vlog)

Produced by Urban Jazz Dance Company. Click to download the Transcript & Video Description as an alternative accessible PDF.

Watch the Vlog

Printable Flyer

Download a printable PDF flyer in multiple languages:

Thumbnail image of the Empowered San Francisco Technology Needs Assessment flyer.

Printable Survey

Download a printable PDF survey in multiple languages. Printed surveys can be returned to:

Thriving in Place
832 Folsom St, 9th floor
San Francisco, CA 94107

Phone-Based Survey (for Service Providers to conduct)

Service providers used these scripts to conduct phone-based surveys with community members.

Land Acknowledgement: We humbly and respectfully recognize that we occupy traditional and unceded Ohlone land. We express gratitude for their past and present stewardship of this land.