The Covid-19 pandemic has really highlighted that digital exclusion spans across the generations and emphasized the persisting inequalities that exist in our communities.
Lockdown had an immediate effect on the way we engaged our service users at Forres Online. Our Digital Participation Charter Fund supported weekly drop-in sessions and our monthly outreach visits to local venues stopped overnight. There was no more face-to-face support, free WIFI or free access to equipment.
We set about doing what we could to continue to help as many people as possible to get online. We set up a remote service to help people by phone, WhatsApp, and video calling on Zoom, Google Meets and our Discord Channel. We quickly adapted to using TeamViewer Quick Support for remote access.
We targeted our regular customers to see how they were coping and received many calls for assistance from people not previously known to us. As well as digital skills support, many people needed connectivity as they didn’t have access at home. We were successful in receiving support through Phase 1 of the Connecting Scotland Initiative and devices were allocated to elderly and vulnerable individuals locally.
We introduced a food project in partnership with Moray Food Plus, TSI Moray and Moray Council. Hot meals and care packages were distributed twice weekly to vulnerable people facing financial hardship. People were struggling to keep track of their money, update their Universal Credit journals, and help their children do schoolwork due to a lack of connectivity, devices and skills in the home. Thankfully the circumstances of vulnerable families are being addressed and we were able to easily identify recipients for the Connecting Scotland Phase 2 allocation of devices.
We worked closely with our Older Persons Befriending project to support people needing shopping or prescription requests, especially if it was proving too stressful for them to attempt these tasks online. They in turn referred people who already had digital devices but needed extra support.
Our weekly digital sessions for the long term unemployed resumed between lockdowns, with social distancing in place. In January we started meeting virtually using our Discord Channel. We mixed the content with some learning tips, videos and quizzes – those who have joined the sessions enjoy the social chat, as many are vulnerable and isolated. Several in the group have succumbed to addiction issues during lockdown but we try to maintain contact even just by text and phone.
We have faced many challenges to get to where we are now. Using technology to teach someone how to use a device can be slow and time consuming. Remote assistance can be challenging due to people being unable to follow instructions given over the phone if they are hard of hearing or frightened of outside access.
Our volunteers and support staff have gone above and beyond, supporting large numbers of people through lockdown. Many have returned for further assistance and have kept in touch. Seeing people’s faces light up when they have connected to a virtual call for the first time – that makes it so satisfying and worthwhile.
We have also been surprised by the many elderly people in the community who have requested assistance to access live dance exercise videos or set up Just Giving pages for donations on Facebook for charity walks and other events. They’ve been making videos and sending them using WhatsApp. These positive outcomes have really made us all smile!
The pandemic has changed the way we interact and communicate. After we come out of lockdown, our remote service will continue alongside our face-to-face drop-in sessions and outreach visits. We will be able to expand our services to suit our learners and volunteers.
We will improve the employability digital skills we offer to those who are long term unemployed and those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Assisting older people to get online will remain a key priority and we will ensure our volunteers up to the same digital skills level to help us embed digital in everything we do.
We hope to never find ourselves in a similar situation again, but if we do – we’ll be ready!