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A stark feature of Covid lockdown measures was the extent to which for many of us living, working and socialising online became ‘the new normal’. At Kids, however, we were acutely aware this was only half the story.
Our frontline staff continued to support families face to face -in nurseries, playgrounds and community settings, by adapting groups to one-to-one sessions or meeting outside when venues were available. Other services, including mediation, were provided by telephone or online. An unexpected benefit was that some young people felt more able to participate in formal meetings about education plans than they had when in person.
Behind the scenes, our support staff switched seamlessly to remote working. Soon, without fully realising it, we were putting in place the foundations for the future – a combination of face to face, online and telephone support, supported by hybrid working.
Quickly we could see the distinction between families who could easily access an online environment and the barriers which prevented others from doing so. Every family was under pressure, but disabled children and their families faced multiple additional challenges as the Disabled Children’s Partnership lay bare in their report Left in Lockdown.
Digital access was a lifeline but also brought its own challenges – not enough devices or bandwidth; on-screen fatigue; dexterity needs or sensory impairments. We adapted ‘in the moment’, making videos for under 5s with Makaton; dropping off sensory packs to support the online experience; and providing tailored one to one support ahead of a group session online.
With Sense we formed a digital services consortium for disabled or seriously ill children’s charities to share good practice. Diverse digital experiences were unfolding before us and we wanted to understand more.
In March, we commissioned a report for the Pears Learning Hub (a partnership between Pears Foundation and the Disabled Children’s Partnership) to uncover the reality of digital experiences for disabled children, young people and their families during Covid. Locked Out: Digital Disadvantage of Disabled Children, Young People and Families during the Covid-19 Pandemic, is a snapshot of their digital lives and the adaptations of organisations around them. Uniquely, the report explains what digital disadvantage is, through the lens of disabled children and their families and shows us how it can be tackled to make services and other parts of society accessible for all.
Digital disadvantage is about far more than access to a technological device. The ability for disabled children and young people to get online and make friends, attend school, seek out information and use services is influenced by multiple factors – technical, personal and environmental. IT skills, familiarity with the specific platform, motivation, time and support within the household, the design of software and hardware and connectivity challenges all have an effect. Practical challenges abound – children without access to specialist equipment at home, were ‘locked out’ of their schoolwork. Without steps to support and reassure, some disabled children were confused or fearful of screen engagement. One parent (interviewed for the research) said: “It was a struggle to learn new tech. It ended up like a full-time job for me. It was hard work and very stressful all-round.”
The report also shows the immense good that digital accessibility can bring. Young people outstripped their own and other’s expectations about their online independence; charities reached new people, including siblings and young carers, with flexible and fun online programmes. Families were freed up from travelling to meetings with professionals and virtual youth groups brought people together who would have found it impossible to attend a physical space.
We all have a role to play in stopping digital disadvantage, experienced by many disabled children and families, from becoming a permanent Covid legacy. Services can provide the ‘pre-care’ and communications to create comfortable digital spaces and support families to balance autonomy with online safety. Government, technology companies and funders should invest now in recovery programmes to increase the whole family’s digital skills and online access to vital services including therapies and peer support. Accessibility standards, co-created with users and enforced, alongside user-led design of hardware and software are critical commitments from policy makers and tech providers.
What matters most are the consequences of digital disadvantage for education, social support, access to essential information and advice and to personal independence. Families already battle for their basic entitlements, including to education, health and respite services. Barriers to accessing vital information and services online make inequality even worse.
We know the future will see services provided in a mix of ways – face to face, online or blended. This is why action is needed now at every level – design, investment and service delivery to plug the gap and make digital access a right not a luxury. Above all, disabled children, young people and their families must be in the driving seat of digital design. They know what works for them, and how to bridge the gap to make digital inclusion a reality.