RTC:Rural Student Research: Expanding Rural Broadband May Support Employment of People with Disabilities

September 20, 2021

In his role as a student research assistant at the RTC:Rural, Arin Leopold has been gathering and analyzing multiple county-level data sources to explore patterns between community factors and disability outcomes.  This past month, Arin leveraged this work and successfully defended his Master’s thesis titled “Understanding the Effect of Community resources on Disability Employment in the Mountain West.” 

Specifically, Arin’s thesis looked at the link between community resources and employment rates of people with disabilities at the county level. Arin was interested in learning how community resources such as access to the internet, health care, and housing were connected to employment. Understanding these relationships can help inform policy for improving the employment rates of people with disabilities.

Arin used the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) framework to guide his research. The SDOH framework describes health as an outcome of the lived environment, which includes economic stability, education, health care access, neighborhood, and social and community contexts. Building on this framework, Arin selected county-level indicators for each SDOH factor, to see how they shaped employment outcomes.

Internet tower

One important and significant finding from his model was the positive association between internet subscription rates and employment rates among people with disabilities. “I wasn’t too surprised that internet subscription rates were significant and had a positive association with disability employment rates, but I was happy to see it was. The literature I used to justify that variable is all pretty new, so it was great to see that association play out in the model,” Leopold said.  

Because rural communities often lag behind urban places in terms of low-cost and reliable internet, advocating for expanded rural broadband may be one avenue to increasing rural employment opportunities for people with disabilities. 

For more information about his research, please contact Arin Leopold at arin.leopold@mso.umt.edu