Irene Mackintosh, Director of Mhor Collective, looks at how Neighbourhood Networks are keeping inclusion at the heart of a shift to digital.

Coronavirus is highlighting something we’ve known for a while: digital inequality and social inequality are inextricably linked. There’s research a-plenty to evidence this, loads of which I’ve written about before in my PhD through UWS. In the context of coronavirus, we’ve seen fantastic examples of supporting people in this new, tricky situation. Kitchen disco anyone? Coffee, art, and a supportive catchup with kids in tow?

What we are seeing now across the third sector is the most incredible drive to respond and improve the situation as best we can for people who need that help the most. Inclusion and accessibility are forefront of all of these discussions: as soon as we think of widening digital participation stuff, we immediately hit big challenges.

How do we make the shift to digital fair?

Not everyone has a device. Or WiFi. Not everyone can use a device, even if they have one. We know that certain groups of people are more likely to face challenges: people who are older, people who are struggling financially, people with additional support needs, carers, cared for, in fact, many of the groups we are used to supporting offline, in a face-to-face environment, because digital is a barrier for these groups, rather than an enabler.

Social inclusion work always relies on human connection, and digital inclusion is no different. It is always about understanding, listening to people, and creating person-centred approaches in the work that we do. Neighbourhood Networks is a research partner in my work with UWS on digital inequality. They’re a social inclusion organisation supporting vulnerable adults, many with learning disabilities, physical disabilities and mental health issues to live an active, healthy life, safely, within their own homes and fully involved within local communities. Members are active in networks, learning life skills, becoming more independent, whilst spending more time with friends and becoming less reliant on paid support. Pre-coronavirus, this was all done with brilliant staff, meeting members in the real world and doing amazing things. Learning and having fun together.

They’re now thinking about how to do this digitally. From experience, they know that members love a wide, varied range of activities: from bingo to bowling, from cooking to craft. Staff are looking at which digital spaces members already use, and then thinking about what might work best, embarking on staff upskilling, support and fast-moving experimentation. This approach means that members will already be in a familiar digital space, and are more able to transfer skills. Staff are supporting this, at distance, often by phone, taking it a wee bit at a time, recognising when folk have had enough, and when it’s time to stop with the digital and revert to chat. This is because they recognise these needs in the ‘real’ world- when it’s time to move away from learning and head to fun.

Getting to grips with tricky issues

Some members have parents and carers who are worried that those they love might be more at risk in a digital environment, perhaps due to issues such as intellectual disabilities. Indeed, some staff are also worried about this risk. This is common in work with ‘vulnerable’ groups, and research shows that this can impact on individual digital participation. So, one of the first pieces of work Neighbourhood Networks is undertaking is to offer a facilitated digital discussion for parents and carers to express concerns about digital participation, and for the organisation to reflect on how to provide support and inclusion in a really difficult context. There’s no perfect, risk-free model, but in the same way that we choose to crossroads, despite the risk of being hit by a car, we can look at informed, managed risk-taking in the digital environment.

Staff are also supporting members in dealing with information, and vitally, misinformation. This is a significant issue for everyone during the pandemic, but especially for people with additional support needs, who may struggle with both literacy and digital literacy. Misinformation is primarily spread through social media, even inadvertently by well-meaning family members, and this can have a damaging and destabilising effect. It’s vital that digital inclusion work recognises the impact of the ‘infodemic’, signposting people to ‘safe’ information sources, helping them understand what’s going on.

Accessibility is for everyone

Neighbourhood Networks are also addressing digital accessibility. They know that many members have additional support needs, and that there’s no ‘one size fits all’: digital tools have to fit people’s needs. One tool can help in lots of different situations: accessibility tools don’t just help people who really need them, but make things better for everyone. An example is the microphone button that pops up on Google, or on your touchscreen keyboard. That wee button can help people with visual impairment access speech-to-text; it can also help people with literacy issues by scribing, and can be dead useful for everyone, speeding up messaging no end. It’s amazing, however, how many of us haven’t used that microphone button yet. It’s a tiny thing, but with huge application. Another easy wee trick is using screen readers: did you know that just by adding ChromeVox to your Chrome browser, you can make the computer read the whole screen to you? True story. And think of the possibilities!

Staff members we’ve worked with in digital champion training with Mhor Collective often ask for support with accessibility tools, but these tools are actually incredibly simple, and it’s more an issue of experimentation and practice. Neighbourhood Networks will be working with staff to help build confidence in tools like these, and build them into everyday use.

Neighbourhood Networks absolutely excels at fun. And creativity. And not taking themselves too seriously all the time. This helps in this bananas situation we are all in. It’s okay to learn together, to work out new ways of doing things. This is what the organisation has always done, and now they’re doing these very things, digitally. It’s an approach that will help us all.