Digital accessibility: a lifeline for the hardest hit in a post-pandemic UK | News | Procurement Hub

Our Appliances Framework partner AO Business discusses the importance of digital accessibility.

Anthony Sant, AO Business Managing Director

Digital access has never been so important as it has been over the last few months. From keeping in touch with loved ones, ordering medication, food shopping, putting in the hours at work from the kitchen table and, of course, learning for the nation’s school pupils.

Staying connected has quite literally been a lifeline for many people. There is no going back on some of the changes made. People who have never picked up a smartphone now view them as an essential tool for living.  Online shopping behaviour has dramatically changed – a switch in the number of people shopping online that should have taken five years took five weeks. Having no choice has meant we have had to adapt quickly.

At AO we have seen demand for smartphones, tablets and laptops increase dramatically. For example, sales of smart devices to over 65s has increased rapidly and, in particular, we’ve seen a huge spike in big button phones.  Demand for home Office equipment (laptops, desktops and monitors and printers) has also risen sharply.

The need for digital access will continue to grow. The impact of the pandemic has shown people the importance of connectivity in all aspects of their life.  

But and there is a but… as we start getting to back to normal or the new normal at least, we need to understand who has not been able to adapt or had the ability to adapt as fast as the rest of us due to their circumstances.

Vulnerable families with limited digital access have had to prioritise, for example, who can do their lesson on the only laptop in the house. They don’t have the budgets to kit out the entire household to be totally digital.

Issues around digital inclusion are not new – they have just been magnified and exposed further by the pandemic. The social housing sector has always faced the challenge of low levels of digital capability and digital access. This is down to a number of factors including:

  • Cost of hardware and broadband
  • Age profile of tenants (there have been silver surfer initiatives, but take-up has still been relatively low)
  • Patchy digital support initiatives, such as basic digital skills training

The result is people in social housing are 20% less likely to have digital skills and invariably are disadvantaged by this.

But why is digital access now so even more critical for society’s most vulnerable?. There are a number of reasons, both directly and indirectly resulting from the pandemic.

First and foremost it will become a health issue when at some point a viable tracing app goes live – those without smartphone access will feel vulnerable and could potentially put their health and that of their local community at risk.

Education has had to transition almost entirely online. Teachers have had to learn digital skills never before needed in a classroom. Many schools will want to embrace these new ways of teaching, adapting them to a classroom setting. But this will still require vulnerable pupils to have hardware if they are going to receive the full benefit and have parity with their peers.

Unfortunately, those hit by redundancy will need access for benefits and, of course, to search out job opportunities and apply for work. This is all done online.

The way organisations talk to their customers has changed forever. Many housing associations were making the digital transition from call centres before the pandemic, but it now seems inevitable that this is accelerated with, for example, tenants using chatbots to assist with repairs on an everyday basis.

Finally, those living in social housing generally face more isolation than many others in society. As we cautiously emerge from lockdown, this isolation will not disappear and the elderly and people with additional needs will need support to combat loneliness.

Through our work in social housing and with charities we understand how a basic electrical item can make such a difference to life chances. For example, a washing machine means a clean school uniform and interview wear. Now it means even more - clean uniforms just so children are able to access school when covid19 guidance calls for freshly cleaned clothes every day.

The same applies to digital. Life chances will be increased with greater digital access. At AO Business we have been working with various authorities in the UK to provide affordable and practical laptops for those hardest hit during the pandemic. We recognise as a business that there is more to do – how can we use our knowledge and expertise to work together to find practical digital solutions.

We’d very much like to hear from housing associations about how we can innovate together to support the transition to digital for some of the UK’s hardest hit communities.

Society has been unpicked and rebuilt so that parts of our everyday lives, like work, education and shopping, are so unrecognisable from what they were at the beginning of the year. Increasing digital access can help overcome some of these difficult changes. Let’s talk about what is possible.

To find out more you can listen to John Roberts on Thursday 25th June 2020 at 9.30am discussing more on the topic of life during and after Covid-19 as well as how we begin to create a new normal for, and with, our communities. You can register your place by clicking here.
Click here to find out more about the Appliances Framework and how a wide range of products at a competitive price can help your organisation to make a difference.

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