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U of Utah professor argues digital divide is a human rights issue

Digital divide
Posted at 1:15 PM, Nov 16, 2021

SALT LAKE CITY — COVID-19 shed a light on the huge digital divide in the country, which is a human rights and social justice issue, argues a University of Utah professor in a recent article published in the Journal of Human Rights and Social Work.

Without access to high-speed internet, staying connected and informed are severely hampered, and lack of access disproportionately affects low-income people, rural residents, people of color, seniors, and Native Americans, writes Cynthia K. Sanders, associate professor and online program director in the College of Social Work, who joined the faculty this year.

“Much of my work is around financial, social or political inclusion,” said Sanders. “The digital divide certainly represents a lack of social inclusion because there are so many things associated with access to broadband in terms of how we think about our daily lives and opportunities, especially highlighted by the pandemic . . . "

At least 20 million Americans do not have access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission, though some estimates are as high as 162 million, according to Sanders.

Federal funds have been allocated toward creating access to the internet, but Sanders and her co-author, Edward Scanlon from the University of Kansas, argue the digital divide must be viewed as more than an infrastructure issue.

“When we know that the people who don’t have it are already disadvantaged in many ways, it should also be viewed as a human rights and social justice issue,” said Sanders.

She says access alone is not the solution, as it must also be affordable, and people need to have digital literacy skills to contact loved ones, apply for employment, and obtain medical records.

In order to reduce the digital divide, Sanders said there are community-based, grassroots initiatives that can serve as excellent models, such as one already in Utah.

“The Murray School District used some federal funds to create their own long-term evolution network (LTE) and that’s something no other district in the nation has done,” said Sanders.

“It’s a great example and something we can learn from in the absence of a more national strategy.”