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Guide For People With Disabilities: Programs For Low-Cost Internet, Mobile Plans, And Digital Literacy

Guide For People with Disabilities: Programs For Low-Cost Internet, Mobile Plans, and Digital Literacy
  • Applying for government assistance programs such as Lifeline is easy because you can do it online.
  • Several internet providers offer their own low-cost programs, so check which ISPs are near you
  • Search for digital literacy programs, as most of them specialize in disability services.
  • Phone programs and prepaid plans are cost-effective, with some made for accessibility.

In this guide, we explain how people with disabilities can receive low-cost internet and cellphone service. We also cover how to get free or low-cost devices and enroll in programs that foster digital literacy. The guide serves as a blueprint to ensure people with disabilities can:

  • Find low-cost internet service providers and phone carriers
  • Receive certain discounts
  • Boost their digital literacy
  • Use current technology regardless of their income and employment status

The need for low-cost options is clear. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that people with disabilities across all age groups are less likely to be employed than people without disabilities. The principle holds true even when the level of education is factored in. People with disabilities are also more likely to be self-employed than those without disabilities.

In fact, eligibility for many of the plans and services listed below is based on income or participation in a program such as SSI or SNAP. Disability by itself is not sufficient to qualify for the average program (it is for some, though, especially for digital literacy training). If you’re also a senior citizen or low-income, we recommend checking out two other guides (for seniors, for low-income).

Table of Contents

Discount Programs

Lifeline Discounts

Lifeline is a Federal Communications Commission program. Through it, you can save up to $9.25 per month on your phone or internet bill (not both). Qualification isn’t based on disability but rather on income or participation in a program such as SNAP or Medicaid.

  • Income: If it’s 135% or less than federal poverty guidelines, you should qualify for Lifeline. Suppose you live in a three-person household in one of the 48 contiguous states. A household income of $31,091 or less would qualify you for Lifeline discounts (as of January 2021). Proof of income such as tax returns or pay stubs is required.
  • Program participation: If you or a child/dependent receive SNAP, Medicaid, SSI, or Federal Public Housing Assistance, you should get into Lifeline. Similarly, you might qualify under the Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit or under Tribal Programs. Tribal Programs could get you an extra $25 off for a discount of up to $34.25 a month.
  • Different households: Only one Lifeline discount is allowed per household. That doesn't necessarily mean you’re out of luck if you live with other people with disabilities. The Household Worksheet determines if more than one household exists at your address. For example, if you live with roommates or in assisted living, the situation likely falls under separate households.

You can apply online, via mail, or through a phone/internet company offering Lifeline. Applying online should be fastest, even leading to immediate approval.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program 

This is a limited-time program offering temporary discounts on broadband internet for low-income folks. Eligible households could receive:

  • Discounts up to $50 per month on broadband and equipment rentals (or up to $75 on certain tribal lands)
  • One-time device discount up to $100 for desktop, laptop, or tablet with co-payment between $10 and $50
  • One broadband discount and one device discount per household (like with Lifeline, it’s possible for multiple households under one roof to qualify)

*** Important: Apply as soon as possible! The program started accepting applications May 12, 2021. It is slated to end either when it runs out of money or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services says the COVID-19 emergency has ended, whichever comes sooner.

Households can qualify if they meet one of the following:

  • Receive Lifeline already (you can get both benefits at the same time and apply them to different services if you want)
  • Have income that’s 135% or less than federal poverty guidelines
  • Participate in SNAP, Medicaid, SSI, Federal Public Housing Assistance, or Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit
  • Have undergone significant income loss
  • Received a federal Pell Grant for the current award year
  • Have approval for free or reduced school lunches
  • Are eligible for a participating broadband provider’s low-income or COVID-19 program

Apply online or through your phone or internet provider.

Human-I-T and EveryoneOn

These two organizations cut through a lot of potential confusion to find the low-cost internet programs available in your area. We mention them in more depth in the Digital Literacy section but wanted to give them a shout out here, too.

  • EveryoneOn: Find local low-cost internet service, computers, and training
  • Human-I-T: Find low-cost internet, training, and digital training

Home Internet Providers’ Low-Income or COVID-19 Programs

Many internet providers have low-cost programs for people on limited incomes and expanded these programs during COVID-19.

For example, AT&T offers internet service for $10 or less per month up to 25 Mbps. It’s a reasonably fast speed that meets many families’ needs. You can stream video to multiple devices, depending on whether you stream in HD, HDR, or 4K. The program is offering temporary speed upgrades during COVID-19. You qualify based on whether you receive SNAP or SSI (the latter in California).

These types of programs typically don’t require contracts, nor do they charge for equipment rental. People with disabilities can qualify based on whether they participate in Lifeline, SNAP, SSI, Medicaid, housing assistance, or other programs. Check the particulars of each program for eligibility details.

Low-Income Phone Programs

A good number of cell phone carriers offer plans for low-income households. Some even include free phones. Like with broadband programs, you qualify based on income/participation in a program rather than on disability. You may have to sign up for Lifeline first.

Programs such as Access Wireless and Infiniti Mobile are free especially when coupled with the Emergency Broadband Benefit. However, they are not available in all ZIP codes. (Remember to apply for Emergency Broadband ASAP!)

Low-Cost Phone Plans

If you don’t qualify for low-income programs, look into options such as prepaid phone plans.

Prepaid Phone Plans

A prepaid phone plan could save you serious money even compared with accessibility phone plans. Of course, prepaid isn’t for everyone. For instance, it can be unnecessarily expensive if you pay for multiple household members to have their own phone lines.

Pros and Cons of Prepaid Plans

Pros Neutrals or Cons
  • Lower costs monthly and overall for individuals
  • More predictable, nice for setting budgets
  • No credit check
  • Choose exactly what you need, like if you want text only or unlimited data + calling
  • No contracts (postpaid contracts typically last two years and include fees if you want to leave early)
  • No activation fee, so the first month is even cheaper vs. a contract/postpaid plan
  • No overage fees for going over limits (no accidental $1,200 bills!)
  • Can bring your own phone to the plan
  • Save even more money with auto pay and paying for several months at once
  • Pay upfront (prepay) for phone usage, including texts and data
  • Must add money to your balance if you run out of usage or wait until the next month
  • Limited or no service bundling for family plans/larger households
  • Speeds may be slightly slower
  • Some limitations if traveling internationally
  • Must pay separately for phone if you don’t already have one

Examples of good prepaid plans include these from national carriers such as AT&T (starting at $50 a month) and Verizon (starting at $35 a month), and these companies:

Be Careful with the FreedomPop Freemium Plan

You may already have heard about FreedomPop’s free (freemium) program. Tread lightly! Going this route may end up costing you in more ways than one.

First things first: It’s true that FreedomPop offers free service that may meet your needs, especially if you rarely use your phone or frequently use it on WiFi. Per month, you get:

  • 25 MBs of LTE data (if exceeded, automatic upgrade to 500MB for $8 for 30 days)
  • 10 cellular text messages
  • Unlimited iMessages and RCS text messages (WiFi only)
  • 10 cellular voice minutes
  • Unlimited WiFi calling
  • Good service on AT&T’s network
  • No contract, cancel anytime
  • Ability to switch between free plan and various paid options

But you also get...

  • Shaky customer support
  • Self-tracking to renew the plan every month to avoid billing surprises
  • Unclear guidelines (a bit of fine print)
  • Potentially expensive bills if there are many paid $8 renewals

You must renew the free plan every month and disable certain options such as automatic top-up and safety mode to avoid being billed for data. It’s also a good idea to set your phone and apps to keep mobile data turned off/to not use cellular data.

This plan involves some effort in exchange for being free, so approach it with caution. Go with this plan only for emergencies, if your phone usage is minimal, or if you rarely use your phone without WiFi.

Accessibility Phone Plans from Carriers

AT&T offers wireless accessibility plans for people with hearing or speech disabilities, but they may not be the best deals.

  • The unlimited data accessibility plan for smartphones costs $75 a month (might save you about $10 a month versus the regular $85 AT&T Unlimited Elite plan for one line, but the regular Unlimited Starter plan begins at $65 a month).
  • The other two smartphone accessibility plans cost $45 for 2GB and $55 for 5 GB, and carry the potential for data overage charges. (To compare, AT&T offers a regular $50 4 GB plan.)
  • If you use a basic cellphone (not a smartphone), plans range from $29.99 to $40.
  • You can keep grandfathered unlimited data plans unless you move to newer data plans.

Among the points to be aware of:

  • Extra fees, charges, and taxes apply
  • Option to add voice restriction (no incoming or outgoing voice calls except 911)
  • Text messaging, email, internet access, video calling, multimedia messaging typically included
  • Certification of disability required
  • Phone and service must be activated first before the accessibility plan can start

Important factors to keep in mind:

  • Compare the costs of low-income, accessibility, prepaid, and regular plans. For example, the savings may be minimal with some accessibility plans for the features you give up. That could especially be true if you pay for multiple people to have lines. AT&T has regular Unlimited Your Way plans starting at $35 for four lines. If you were going to pay for four lines anyway, the regular route may be cheaper than paying for an accessibility plan plus three regular lines.
  • If you’re a senior, check out senior discounts. They may save more money than accessibility plans.
  • You can save even more money on various plans through advance payment, automatic payment, and paperless billing.

It’s not typical for carriers to offer accessibility plans, but they do have websites detailing resources and mobility tools.

Carriers’ accessibility websites

Prepaid Home Internet Plans

Prepaid home internet plans, also called pay-as-you-go internet, have many of the same benefits of prepaid cell plans: Predictable costs that make budgeting easier, no contracts, no credit check, no hidden fees, no deposit, etc. You can purchase a router from the company or bring your own.

The download and upload speeds are usually good, too. With 50 Mbps, you can easily stream movies to two devices simultaneously. Plan examples include these:

Digital Literacy Programs

Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Programs

VR programs offer digital literacy training (assistive technology services) that can help clients with all types of disabilities reach their employment goals. For instance, Washington state’s training includes ergonomic, computer access, mobility, organizational, transportation, and mobility support evaluations. The state’s VR also partners with Do-It programs for some digital literacy assistance.

To get started with VR: Apply for services. Begin with this website for state vocational rehabilitation agencies to identify the programs and services in your area.

State Digital Literacy Training

Your state may have a department specializing in your disability, for example, the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind. These departments tend to offer digital literacy programs. Washington has independent living services to help people learn how to use technology such as smartphones.

To find these programs: Disability support is usually part of social and health services departments (like Washington’s).

School Programs

Get in touch with local school and college programs. They can point you in the right direction to enhance your digital literacy in an accessible environment.

Third-Party Programs

Human-I-T offers digital training and assistance with low-cost internet. The digital training methods may not be compatible for everyone with a disability but should be fine for some.

EveryoneOn helps folks find low-cost computers, internet service, and digital literacy training in their area. Enter your ZIP code and check any criteria that apply to your household (like if your household includes a K-12 student or if you’re low-income).

The only digital literacy training that comes up may be from your local public libraries. Don’t overlook them as resources. Even if the staffers there don’t know much about people with your specific disabilities, they should be able to refer you to community connections who do.

Deaf-Blind and Blind Programs

The Helen Keller National Center for DeafBlind Youths & Adults (HKNC) offers on-and off-campus digital literacy services (among many other services!). Assistive technology programs can assist users to:

  • Assess their technology skills
  • Figure out accessibility features on their mobile devices
  • Send email
  • Conduct business from their laptop
  • Find an all-in-one solution to meet their tech needs
  • Minimize workplace and communication obstacles
  • Get devices through iCanConnect 

Helen Keller offers similar assistive technology services for clients who are blind (but not deaf). Clients can learn how to use smartphone and computer apps, screen readers, wearables, magnification and enlargement software, and much more. 

The Perkins School for the Blind also offers resources that anyone can access online. Its technology curriculum is online and includes information on Gmail and JAWS, Narrator, and much more.

State Device Programs

Many states have programs that distribute telecommunications equipment to qualifying individuals with disabilities. For instance, under Washington’s TED program, you could get a free WiFi-only iPad, a hands-free, remote-control speakerphone, or other equipment. You must be deaf, deaf-blind, or have a speech disability.

Disability Organizations

A local, state, or national organization may represent the interests of people with your disability. Turn to it for help/questions about digital literacy. Washington state has a long list of resource links if you need ideas. It covers disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, deafness, and down syndrome.

This page is for everyone who feels lost in the digital age. Understanding the internet and TV market is difficult considering how much it changes.
Here you’ll find information on the best ways to get internet and TV that can accommodate to your circumstances, answers to frequently asked questions about internet and TV technology and terminology and simple explanations to some of the most confusing topics related to internet and TV.