Digital Inclusion – Worldwide Lessons during COVID
By Janeen Halliwell and Paul Fleming, Partners
598 Words. About a 3-minute read.
Last week we ran across a brand-new meta study on the digital inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities during COVID 19 (here). This study reviewed 16 studies on this topic during COVID 19 (2020 – 2021) and also reached out to researchers worldwide to capture studies that haven’t been published yet. Given how many organizations had to switch on a dime to virtual service provision, it’s an important window into the effects of these efforts.
Its conclusion is mixed. Digital engagement during COVID-19 provided emotional wellbeing among other benefits. However, digital poverty was exacerbated during the pandemic for a variety of reasons we’ll dig into below. The digital exclusion of people with an intellectual disability grew, but so did the awareness of digital poverty.
Access to the internet is a Human Right.
It is important to start by remembering that the United Nations Convention on Rights of People with Disabilities (CRDP) defines access to the internet as a human right.
The sudden appearance of COVID forced an unforeseen increased use of information and communication technologies (ICT) by people with an intellectual disability to receive some services, such as healthcare appointments, mental health therapy, and online recreational and social pursuits. When digital inclusion was experienced (primarily by videoconferencing like Zoom), people were less likely to feel isolated, maintained interpersonal relationships with friends and family, experienced emotional wellbeing, increased agency, choice and power, confidence, and an improved overall balance in life. Digital inclusion works best when the financial resources, internet connection, technical support, training, and support for the person with an intellectual disability and their supporter are available. It was also noted that people with prior experience (individuals and caregivers) using digital tools had an advantage during the switchover.
Sometimes part of the solution is part of the problem.
Perhaps what is more interesting is what got in the way of providing an inclusive digital experience. The cost of digital devices and no access to internet were frequent obstacles. Children and adults with an intellectual disability were often dependent on a caregiver/service provider for support (resulting in a loss of autonomy), and those caregivers often lacked digital literacy skills, prior training, and confidence. Well intentioned parents also limited online time or restricted access to certain content, as did support workers in residential care. Some caregivers struggling with technology also pushed people to phone calls, avoiding video contact between family members.
Our new reality.
While in place by some organizations before the pandemic, COVID exposed both the benefits and risks of connecting digitally. Digital inclusion, digital exclusion and digital poverty became a focal point of many discussions over the last two years because our collective reality now is that our lives are intertwined. As the paper puts it:
“…the pandemic has highlighted that the benefits of digital inclusion far outweigh the cost to society of providing support in ICT use for people with ID for increased inclusion, not only in digital life but also in life overall. Although technology cannot replace offline social contact, in-person social contact alone cannot replace/compensate for online social participation. Full citizenship now includes having an online presence and participation.”
As COVID becomes endemic it leaves the health and human services sector with this challenge – how do we ensure that inclusion happens at the intersection of all aspects of an individual’s life? The elements outlined in this article – providing access to affordable technology and internet connections, developing digital literacy skills in our service providers, families, and the individuals with intellectual disabilities, and advocating beside them for this – will lay the foundation for successful digital inclusion in the years to come.