Net Neutrality & What Proposed Changes Could Mean for the Disability Community

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Erin Vallely

What did you do today? I went Christmas shopping, compared online graduate school programs, listened to music, read the newest issue of Food Network magazine (the holiday cookie edition!) and talked to my friends. As a quadriplegic, I would not have been able to do any of these activities independently if not for net neutrality. Individuals with disabilities should be very wary of proposed changes to net neutrality regulations, because we depend on the open internet for our daily activities. It is the most accessible, and important avenue for accommodations and independence we have, albeit imperfect. What is net neutrality and what does the potential repeal of it mean for us? Read on to find out.

What is Net Neutrality?

As Stephanie Kan describes in the Houston Law Review (2016), net neutrality laws, officially adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2015, prohibit internet service providers (I.S.P.s) from speeding up, slowing down or blocking any content, applications or websites consumers want to access. Websites, apps, video streaming services and search engine results all fall under net neutrality protections. This helps ensure everyone has equal access to all information on the internet no matter their provider or their searches. Current regulations force I.S.P.s to make all legal content equally accessible to all individuals. 

Possible Effects

NY Times Cecilia Kang explains that if the FCC does vote to repeal net neutrality, users will likely have to pay even more for the most basic services. Application packages, social media, and video streaming sites will likely be additional monthly charges on top of user’s current bills. University of Southern California’s Aalok Mehta, specializing in telecommunications and internet policy, warns I.S.P.s will not make improvements to their systems because otherwise, they will forfeit their newfound profit. 

Another provision of the current laws, FCC director Ajit Pai, is looking to end is the prohibition of blocking certain websites or applications that the I.S.P. disagrees with or considers competition. I.S.P.s would be allowed to block or slow access speeds to less favorable websites and applications and speed up their own or the services that pay the company off. By blocking, slowing or price gouging content creators it will make it harder, if not impossible, for new startups to gain an online presence. Censoring what is available on the Internet gives corporations and government the potential to control society even more than they do now.   

What People with Disabilities Will Lose without Net Neutrality

Pai’s proposed repeal of net neutrality policies impacts everyone’s way of life but is especially dangerous for the Disability Community. Many of us are on tight budgets, and will likely be unable to afford the increased bills that will come with the itemization of resources we use every day. 

Access to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Skype, message boards, Netflix, HULU, YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, gaming sites, email and other communication apps could be limited, cutting us off from our friends, family, support systems and entertainment. Comparison online shopping for personal hygiene products, groceries and take-out, pet supplies, office and hobby supplies, clothing, furniture, gifts or entertainment online will be limited. The ability to pay bills, do banking online or research investments will be restricted too.   

Options for online education opportunities including homeschooling platforms, workshops and webinars, career training programs, and college and master’s programs will drop. Research for projects and assignments could be fee based. Fewer ebooks and audio books will be available from the library or other resources. Remote and work from home jobs will disappear. We won’t be able to attend meetings and appointments via video platform or conduct thorough job searches.   

Researching the best doctors, hospitals, services and treatments for our disabilities will be much more difficult. Finding personal care attendants and support staff will become even more difficult too. Shopping for the medical supplies and equipment that best meets our needs will be limited to even fewer providers. Participation by PWDs in political and social activism will decline, making it easier to ignore our voices. Organizing and advertising community events will be harder and online reviews of airlines, hotels, businesses and events may disappear altogether.

Adherence to internet accessibility laws is also in danger. We must protect our rights and freedoms from capitalism and the current administration. We cannot afford to lose our hard-fought place in society. My independence is on the line, along with millions of others. 

Currently, the FCC plans to vote on repealing net neutrality December 15th, 2017. Director Pai states they will have voluntary guidelines on net neutrality that tech giants have already agreed to. This means they could easily change their minds as soon as the proposal has passed. Given everything that is at stake, I would like to believe them, but given their healthcare and tax reform promises, how can we? 

Action Steps to Protect Net Neutrality and Information Resources

Do you want to protect net neutrality regulations? If so, check out these resources to voice your opinions.


Erin Vallely lives with a rare form of muscular dystrophy and is a proud wheelchair user. Having graduated with a B.A. in Sociology and Anthropology with a Spanish minor from Wells College in Aurora, NY, she plans to pursue a career in disability rights advocacy and possibly politics. In her spare time Erin enjoys reading about other people’s experiences, supporting other minority groups, and traveling.