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Introducing Tech to Rural Areas: A Digital Navigator’s Perspective

In September 2022, Easter Seals Greater Houston/BridgingApps became one of 18 organizations in the new Digital Navigator Corps, a national program formed under a $10 million investment from Google.org. The purpose of the Corps is to help rural residents gain access to the internet, to digital skills training, and to devices for making use of both.

Walter Prescher, our newest Digital Navigator, lives in rural Texas and specializes in introducing technology and digital literacy to rural communities. Today’s article shares his observations from the field.

The need for technology access is great in rural areas, many of which are physically remote from services that suburban and urban areas take for granted. Seeing a medical specialist, registering at a government-assistance office, even visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles for a driver’s license—getting there personally can take an hour or more. For example, a resident of Leakey, Texas, would have to drive forty miles to Uvalde (and forty miles back) to personally register for WIC assistance, SNAP benefits, TANFChild Care Management Services, and other benefits that could easily be applied for online.

Hurdles to Finding Reliable Internet

Most rural communities are aware of the benefits of having technology in the home. The challenge is availability and affordability. Acquiring access in the first place requires the capacity to shop online, or else special travel to acquire needed devices. Plus, reliable connectivity options are already diminished in rural areas, because it takes extra trouble to run connections to less populated places. Many ranch and farmland areas can get online access only through fixed wireless broadband or by satellite—neither of which is that consistently reliable, despite ongoing technological improvements. (For instance, satellite service tends to go out in severe weather.)

If these concerns aren’t enough in themselves, many rural communities have high poverty rates due to limited employment opportunities. They also deal with higher-than-average living expenses, because many staples come from greater distances at higher transportation costs. So for many families, technology is a luxury.

Rural Digital Navigators and the Rural Mindset

Working around all this requires more than selling individuals on remote access to city-based services: it takes active cooperation from the whole community. You can’t just walk in and tell them you have a better way, not when you lack automatic credibility in the local community and don’t yet understand the way things work there. Not only are people resistant to the influence of outsiders, in most rural areas any newcomer wears the “outsider” label for years. (Some communities joke that as long as anyone is alive who remembers your moving in, you are an outsider.) And they’re particularly suspicious of anyone who represents large outside organizations, which are perceived as a threat to the community’s way of life.

One of the best ways to overcome the “outsider” label is to have a local resident in good standing, a recognized leader in the community, vouch for you. Connections outside your organization can help establish a toehold through credibility with local leaders. I find prominent fraternal-type organizations—Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Knights of Columbus, Masonic Lodges—particularly good in this respect.

Another thing about the rural mindset: it’s seriously resistant to change. The tempo of life in a rural community is different than in suburban or urban areas: I would say that most rural communities survive on ritual and routine. There’s a gathering spot for the men of the community to hang out and drink coffee, at the feed store or the only restaurant in town. Everyone is at the stadium when home football games are played. Everybody knows everybody else by name, habits, and personality quirks.

Digital Navigators Making a Difference

People who thrive on “no hurry, no change” aren’t going to be impressed by faster online connections or an array of download options. You have to show how technology relieves their immediate pain points.

That’s the secret of introducing anything new to anybody: meet them where they are. One client had been without home internet for three months following a hardware malfunction: his cell phone was his sole, less-than-adequate connection to email, social media, internet, and insurance or banking services. Our Digital Navigator helped him to acquire a new router and get it configured; to connect a brand-new smart TV; and to take a course on using YouTube and other streaming services for entertainment. So in the process of solving his immediate difficulties, we also helped him learn about additional digital options he could enjoy.

Active over a large area that includes many rural communities, BridgingApps welcomes every opportunity and resource to benefit our service demographic. Watch our blog for more reports from the field!

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