How Coronavirus and inequality combine to increase physical and digital disconnection
Lockdown and Covid-19 restrictions have increased our reliance on the internet in all aspects of life, from buying food and accessing services, to working, learning and keeping in touch with loved ones. But not everybody has access to the internet or the necessary technology, and the impact of this digital divide has intensified and become more debilitating than ever during the last few months.
Access to the internet is considered a basic right by the UN, yet many people can’t afford its price or devices, while others lack the skills or confidence to use the technology. In 2018, 7% of the population in London had still never used the internet or had not used it in the last three months while across the UK, only half of the households earning less than £10,000 had access to the internet at home.
Islington Council estimated at the start of the lockdown that around 2,250 secondary school children did not have access to a device for learning. Other issues identified included safeguarding, accessibility, lack of program licenses as well as devices being simply too old for use with classroom platforms. Children and young people without reliable internet connection or devices at home were left in the dark during lockdown and this is likely to have had a massive negative impact on them before their return to school. They are likely to have slipped further behind in their learning and any difficulties they were likely to face in adjusting to the return to the physical learning environment exacerbated.
Students attending a Zoom class by Gabriel Benois
Another particularly vulnerable group are older people. Digital exclusion for older people can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation with huge implications for mental wellbeing. Older people are also more likely to struggle to access vital statutory support services that are becoming increasingly digitalised. According to Age UK,
“Some older people turn to family or friends for help with digital access, but a number worry about being a burden or losing some independence, or are uncomfortable concerning matters of personal or financial topics; this could expose some to the risk of financial abuse. Others have no one who could help them”.
Accessible online services and products
An often forgotten barrier to getting online is the lack of accessibility. Not all digital services and products are designed in an easy to use way, so that e.g. people with disabilities can use them. As Molly Gavriel, Partnerships Manager at The Developer Society states, “people with visual impairments, hearing loss, intellectual disabilities, or any number of other very common life situations can find the experience of being online extra challenging”.
People with disabilities are disproportionately affected by digital exclusion: 56% of adults not using the internet are disabled, more than double the proportion of disabled adults in the UK population as a whole (estimated to be 22%in 2016/17).
Woman navigating an accessible website by vectorfusionart
Organisations helping to connect residents in Islington
From the very start of the pandemic many organisations in the borough have been working tirelessly to bridge the digital divide. They’ve been making changes to their services, ensuring they provide not only online services, but also telephone support and socially distanced face–to–face support when possible, particularly with older residents in mind.
“Those who have not been able to engage in online activities have reported an increased sense of loneliness and social isolation. Many residents live alone and have really missed attending our weekly activities”, explains John Warby, Team Leader for Help on Your Doorstep’s Connect Team. “At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I knew that there were families that would struggle to access online activities due to a lack of equipment. Not everyone can afford to have a laptop or computer at home. Whilst mobile phones are great for checking Facebook or Instagram, it’s difficult to do your homework on an iPhone.”
Donated tech ready to be distributed to people in Islington by Islington Giving
YES Outdoors and Mer-IT launched a very successful tech appeal that to date has donated over 100 laptops from residents and businesses in Islington and Camden. Islington Giving helped to promote the appeal using its access to residents and businesses to increase awareness and made it easy for people to donate through the Islington Giving website while using its knowledge of the voluntary sector to help ensure donated technology got to where it was most needed. Many other local organisations referred residents in need of technology.
Patrick, Programme Manager at Islington Giving explains how the Tech Appeal came to life
“So far we have made 15 referrals into these schemes. These fantastic and much needed services have helped support our clients to stay in contact with the outside world at a time when it really mattered. Families have told me: “This came just at the right time. Our laptop broke and my son, who is in year 6 could not access his school work at this most important time for him. Both my partner and myself had been furloughed from work so could not afford to buy a new laptop. The Connect team were really easy to deal with and ensured we got the laptop quickly, ” says John.
Islington Giving and Cripplegate Foundation have also committed to support the purchase of many new devices for young people in need
At Healthwatch Islington they have continued to provide digital support and skills training to local residents who need it during the pandemic. “We are no longer able to visit supported living schemes or deliver digital workshops in community venues due to the coronavirus pandemic. However we continue to provide digital support to local residents who need it. With social distancing measures in place, it’s even more important that people are supported to get online”, explains Healthwatch on their website.
They will continue offering virtual drop in sessions and activities during the coming weeks to help everyone stay connected, learn new skills, share information, enjoy quizzes and coffee mornings. You can contact Philippa Russell to find out more: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Funding for digital projects through the Crisis Fund
A large proportion of money from our Crisis Fund has gone back out to support local organisations making sure no one is left behind.
Some of the donations went to the Elfrida Society to ensure people with learning disabilities have access to digital platforms. Many of Islington’s Chinese Association’s clients are older and non-English speakers; money from the fund ensured access to services, trainings and provided the technology to effectively support people from the community long-term. Hear more about the needs of residents as well as what has helped during the last few months.
You can still donate to the Islington Crisis Fund: With your support we can continue funding organisations in the borough that work with the community to ensure no one is left behind.
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