The COVID-19 pandemic has sharply highlighted the digital divide that still exists in our society. People who are most affected by digital disadvantage include seniors, adults living with a disability, vulnerable school students, and community members needing to access community pantries and crisis support.
“The COVID-19 crisis is further marginalising people in our community who do not have access to digital resources such as computers, tablets or smartphones,” said Woden Community Service CEO Jenny Kitchin.
“Some cannot afford to pay for an internet connection or cover the cost of enough data to use our service,” she said.
While some older Australians are very capable with technology, or receive support from family and friends, others have no experience, or access to smartphones, tablets or computers, and many would find purchasing hardware and NBN access too difficult and too expensive.
“The majority of our seniors primarily attend our social program for the engaging social connections and warm friendships it provides them. These connections are vital for their mental health and wellbeing,” said Communities@Work CEO Lee Maiden.
“But the dual problems of a COVID-19 lockdown and many seniors’ limited knowledge of or access to digital communication means we have had to be creative in providing alternative ways to ensure our senior clients stay socially connected. These include weekly phone calls, a mailed newsletter, assistance with service referrals and organisation, and assisted shopping trips,” she said.
Belconnen Community Service CEO Mandy Green says NDIS participants from every age group and ability experience difficulties because they lack digital resources, whether internet connection or a computer or other device.
“While we have successfully transitioned our groups for people living with a disability online, many of our participants have not been able to access our services due to the lack of digital resources which is a significant disadvantage for these valued members of our community,” said Ms Green.
“Our facilitators have been in regular phone contact to ensure that participants who are not able to access our online groups are not further socially isolated. Whilst some of our participants have the technology required, the knowledge and ability to use the device has also been a challenge,” she said.
For lower-income families, the cost of digital devices and the monthly outlay for network or NBN access is a drain on the household income.
Parents have also been expected to provide internet access for their children during Term 2 of the ACT school year and some are using their mobiles as hotspots for school-provided devices, dramatically pushing up the data component of their phone bill.
Woden Community Service says the ACT Education Directorate has made significant inroads in ensuring school-aged children have access to computers and wifi during the COVID-19 lockdown, but requests for phone credit assistance and data packs and help with ISP bills have increased substantially.
“The COVID-19 crisis has emphasised the vulnerability experienced by members of our community who do not have access to the technology and tools that the rest of us take for granted,” said Northside CEO Bruce Bapps.
“With more engagement and services being done using technology, these members of our community feel even more helpless and disconnected,” he said.
Community Services #1 have been printing mindfulness activities, boredom busters and community activities such as the ‘Bear Hunt’ initiative and delivering it to clients letterboxes to ensure they have regular contact and connection.
“While we have moved many of our services online, many of our clients would be disconnected and socially isolated if we did not find new ways to stay connected as they are unable to afford digital technology or do not have the skills to participate,” said Community Services #1 CEO Amanda Tobler.
The key message from all community organisations is the same: vulnerable people who do not have access to technology are becoming increasingly socially isolated and cannot afford either the technology or the wifi access to reconnect.
To learn more about how you can support these services, visit their websites: Communities@Work, Belconnen Community Service, Woden Community Service, Community Services #1, and Northside. Mobile smartphones, laptops, computers or tablets can be donated at GIVIT.