Equal access for all has been a standing call for social inclusion and disability rights activists for many years. Ramps have been custom built for venues, alternate access routes established, consideration of visual distinguishment on steps for those who are visually impaired added, contrast colours established on posts and lifts put in amongst many other elements to ensure everyone can physically move as freely as possible.
Has anyone stopped to consider what this call for equal access means in a digital age? Through the changes to social care over the past several decades, many more people are staying in their own homes or have support in the community to stay as independent as possible. How can we support this independence and accessibility in those every day activities of paying bills, signing up for a different electric supplier, checking benefits, applying for social housing, reporting a repair on your home or other everyday necessary activity. Many, if not all of which, have been moved away from face to face or even phone lines, being centrally online.
Some may think that this is good progress so that we do not need to battle through phone lines after selecting different options then being transferred across staff members on the phone or queuing in a shop for hours just to pick up a form to then have to re-que to hand in. However, what about those who can not read and write, those who may not have free access to a computer or technical device, who might not have hand eye coordination, reduced fine motor control or have got access but are not technologically “savvy”. What about those who are sensory impaired, cognitive processing, reduced problem solving or otherwise?
If they have a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) in place for property and affairs, then they can direct this person to act on their behalf or if the person lacks capacity then the Attorney can act in their best interest. However, there are still many who fall through this gap and may need someone to support them. One might think, well a family or friend could support them with online access to complete these tasks. But with the added complexities of GDPR for information governance, data protection, confidentiality, consent and mental capacity, this is no easy feat to navigate. Especially when establishing what the limits of this role are; If we have consent can we open an account and know passwords, can we access their account without a legal role of being an LPA, deputy or guardian working on their behalf, is NOK enough?
Even if able to access online, the format and processes of the online platforms are often poorly laid out, ambiguous in phrases, misleading or incompatible to the evidence required to be uploaded.
Accessibility in this present digital age is not enabling equal access for all. Those who are aware of services or seeking help, may call upon charities such as Porchlight, Advocacy, or Citizens Advice. Some may be referred across by a family or friend, a professional who is supporting or be aware of their services already, however many would not know how to gain avenues of support through these channels. Leaving others struggling through phone lines, avoiding the task to hand, attempting the best they can or otherwise.
What impact does this have? I would say that primarily it is disabling people through the poor interfaces with company’s/services. The challenge of addressing these communication issues with services, can exacerbate a person’s health and wellbeing, especially upon mental health through the stress of trying to overcome these communication challenges.
When working as an advocate, we had increasing numbers of Non Statutory referrals, often from individuals seeking support in communicating housing repairs to their social housing organisations, as they were struggling to communicate the necessary information using the online interfaces. There were a number of other complex factors at work here, in terms of responses, covid and other elements, impacting resolutions. However, this simple factor of increased reliance on tech to log repairs, report concerns or make requests to rehouse resulted in poor relationships with tenants, increased stress and confusion and delayed help being acquired.
How can we address this digital exclusion? One way is to establish what each clients communication needs are, finding out if they need phone call support, face to face, written or online to engage with the services available. That even this step should be offered in different formats, considering if a phone called, emailed or paper questionnaire is best.
Another is through working together with a wide range of people as a focus group to address formats of the website, unpick best practice with phone lines and discuss presentation of letters and emails to enable accessibility for all.
Core message is to return to a person centred communication focus, to improve interactions and accessibility for all, which in theory will reduce challenges of poor services due to digital exclusion.