The daily realities of the digital divide in the North East of England – a call to connect our community members

‘As an organisation that responds to the needs in our low income communities by, in the first instance, developing trusting relationships with people who live in very difficult circumstances, I never imagined a world whereby social distancing measures would be implemented. The difficulties associated with trying to stay connected with the people that pass through our doors has proved challenging and in some cases, impossible’

Tracey, Thrive

Take Wayne for example, he popped into our office 2 or 3 times a week. We helped him complete his application for PIP, made the first tentative steps of putting him in touch with MIND and Adult Social Services and generally inquired about how he was doing each week. Wayne does not have a phone, has no device or internet access in his home, has difficulties with literacy, is unable to read or write, suffers with anxiety and depression and lives alone. His contact with Thrive was a lifeline, a friendly face, a support mechanism that was helping him work towards enabling him to deal with a number of difficulties in a way that suited him. Wayne is not the only person who is now not connected to a wider world. The rates of digital exclusion for the North East are above the national average at 12.1% which represents the highest in England

We live in a world that is increasingly dependent on technology, for some this has been positive and revolutionary, enabling people to connect, entertain themselves, pay bills and save time. The window to the outside world and ability to communicate with others is at the click of a button, an absolute life saver during these unprecedented times. But spare a thought for people who are not on line. Their connections, support and networks are lost:  

 ‘If you are lucky enough to have the internet in your home, can afford your monthly bill and actually know what you are doing, life during this lockdown, although still awful, may seem a little bit more bearable I guess– for me this is not the case. I feel cut off from the outside world, alone and forgotten about. How do I go about paying my council tax? I normally go to the library and pay it there… nobody is telling me anything, what am I supposed to do? I can’t do online shopping or banking, my life was straight forward before, now I feel all over the place, I’m scared and worried all the time’

Mary, Thrive

It is vitally important to reflect on the issues raised by people who are not connected in traditional on line ways in the UK.  Listening to the voices of people who are affected by any given issue – in this case the voices of people who are digitally excluded in our communities is key to unlocking the solutions needed?

It is important to understand the reasons that lay behind people’s inability to not connect in this digital world and what the impact is on their lives. Without this insight, assumptions will be made and solutions to address the issue will most certainly be ineffective and not achieve the well-meaning and desired outcomes. Merging various areas of expertise, insight and knowledge is key to developing meaningful solutions.

I ponder on what is happening with Wayne and others who are in similar positions, and with that in mind, we ask that:

  • The government prioritises working with communities who are not connected via the internet at this time and consider working towards introducing fully accessible WI-FI for vulnerable low income groups coming out of this current crisis.
  • Opportunities are made available for digitally excluded, low income community members to design technological support packages to build skills, knowledge and confidence ensuring they are designed to best effect.