Arkansas Looks to Broadband, New Partners to Tackle Rural-Urban Divide in Disability Service Delivery

By Sean Slone, Senior Policy Analyst

Nearly 50 million Americans live in rural areas, where the percentage of people reporting disabilities is highest (17.8%, compared to 12.1% for metropolitan counties). Yet despite the high rate of disability in rural areas, people with disabilities can face significant barriers accessing services and supports, including employment supports. Challenges include long waitlists for Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services, limited employment options, and lack of transportation and/or broadband to access training and employment opportunities.

Arkansas is one state that has sought to address the challenges faced by people with disabilities living in rural areas and better connect them to employment services, supports, and opportunities. Strategies include expanding broadband access in rural areas, delivering VR services remotely, and leveraging statewide and community partners to better reach individuals with disabilities living in rural areas.

Employment Barriers for People with Disabilities in Rural Areas in Arkansas

A 2021 profile by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture identifies Arkansas as one of the most rural states in the country; forty-one percent of Arkansas’ population lives in rural areas, compared with 14% of the U.S. population. According to Jonathan Taylor, Executive Director of the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, Arkansans with disabilities living in rural areas can face significant barriers to employment in the state. Many experience a four-to-six-month wait to receive VR services, which help them prepare for and attain employment. Once an individual is able to work with a VR client manager, they then struggle finding employment opportunities.

“There are large pockets of the state where in your community, the only employers may be a gas station, a convenience store or a Dollar General,” Taylor said. “In those environments with very low staff, it can be very difficult for somebody with an intellectual or developmental disability to find an environment where they can thrive.”

In addition, there may be limited opportunities for remote work, due to the lack of broadband internet in the state. According to the Federal Communications Commission, only 60% of Arkansans in rural counties live in areas with internet that meets a benchmark download/upload speed. “There are parts of Arkansas where you literally hear that old school dial tone, because that’s all you can get—dial-up [internet]—and it’s unbelievably slow,” said Taylor.

Expanding Broadband and Remote Services and Opportunities

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson devoted significant resources to expanding broadband access in the state. In 2019, he issued a state broadband plan and created a state broadband office that has awarded nearly $400 million in grants to connect rural parts of the state, utilizing federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and other sources. He also worked with the legislature to commission a study of households underserved by broadband.

In addition to connecting individuals with disabilities in rural areas to remote work opportunities, expanded broadband can help them better access VR services. Taylor said the state’s VR agency, Arkansas Rehabilitation Services (ARS), was able to pivot effectively to providing virtual client management during the pandemic. Taylor feels that more virtual interface options for people with disabilities in rural Arkansas can go a long way in solving both their transportation and service delivery challenges. ARS is expected to upgrade its website in 2023 to provide more options for virtual service delivery.

Working With Other Partners to Reach Rural Communities

In their efforts to provide employment supports and services to more people with disabilities in rural areas, state agencies in Arkansas have started to collaborate and blend and braid funding to expand their collective reach. This includes collaboration between ARS and the state’s Provider-Led Arkansas Shared Savings Entity (PASSE) program, which serves Medicaid clients with complex behavioral health, developmental, or intellectual disabilities. ARS is able to share funding with the PASSEs to reach more rural pockets of the state with Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS), which provide students with disabilities the opportunity to prepare for and explore the world of work. The sharing arrangement allows ARS, which can offer services in only a limited number of high schools in the state, to extend its reach to serve more people.

Similarly, ARS is working with Easter Seals Arkansas to extend Pre-ETS to rural areas through its SET for Success program in several central Arkansas school districts. As part of the program, trained professionals work with students to help them navigate the post-high school transition period with workplace readiness training, work-based learning experiences, and other initiatives.

Additional Proposed Strategies

State officials see promise in two other strategies to extend service delivery to people with disabilities living in rural areas: engaging people with disabilities directly to better understand their needs and connect them to each other, and collaborating with non-traditional partners such as churches and faith communities to better reach those with disabilities. 

Taylor said the Arkansas State Rehabilitation Council has started to engage people with disabilities at a high level to talk about the accessibility of ARS offices and services. However, they’re now considering a more concerted effort to build networks within and among smaller rural communities and to connect the individuals who could benefit from services to each other.

As for faith communities, Taylor believes they could be an answer to helping overcome mistrust of government services in some communities.

“There are more churches than anything else, particularly in the smaller communities,” said Taylor. “I certainly see that as key [to reaching individuals with disabilities in rural areas].”

Considerations for States

Other states have also launched initiatives to help deliver employment and related services to people with disabilities in rural areas.

  • Colorado Senate Bill 17-011 (2017) created a technical demonstration forum to study solutions to improve transportation access for people with disabilities, including those living in rural areas of the state, with an emphasis on providing adequate access to geographically dispersed jobs.
  • Hawaii Senate Bill 892 (2015)makes appropriations to expand broadband access, in part to “empower people with disabilities and remov[e] barriers that keep them from participating in everyday activities.”
  • In Idaho, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation has collaborated with libraries to establish information and referral procedures for serving individuals with disabilities in rural communities, where VR lacks a physical presence.
  • From 2015-2017, Montana Vocational Rehabilitation and Blind Services contracted with the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities at the University of Montana to provide Pre-ETS to students with disabilities.
  • In July 2020, the Tennessee Department of Human Services published a best practice guide to delivering Pre-ETS virtually. It includes practices for partnering with local education agencies, which can aid in delivering virtual services to those in rural areas.
  • Wyoming addresses rural transportation access needs for workers with disabilities through regional transportation voucher programs operated by Wyoming independent living centers, Wyoming Independent Living Rehabilitation and Wyoming Services for Independent Living, with funding support from state government.