By tutoring blind and disabled people in digital IT skills, a charity is helping to boost greater independence.
Steve Longridge, who is registered blind, is able to read his own letters for the first time without relying on a friend. He can email his brother in the Philippines, rather than make expensive phone calls, and he can hone his general knowledge online before taking part in his local pub quiz. These significant steps towards greater independence, which are transforming his social life as well as boosting his employment skills, come 18 months after he enrolled on a digital training course offered by the charity UCanDoIT.
Longridge, 44, who lives in south-west London and has been out of work since being made redundant from his bank job nearly three years ago, says: "I am hoping to learn skills I need for employment, but also for leisure, such as buying tickets online." He never learnt about computers at school because his statutory education finished before the dawn of the digital age. Although he tried to pick up the skills at college, he dropped out because the tutors knew little about the specialist software he needed, and lacked the skills to work with somebody who was visually impaired.
UCanDoIt estimates that there are around 150,000 disabled people living in the UK who are digitally excluded and could benefit from its programme, which offers one-to-one tuition in the student's home. Tutor Debbie Brixey says: "It's all well and good to talk about digital inclusion and disabled people, but if you can't provide the specialist training it's meaningless. The government's ideas about access are different to mine. To them it means there is a college with a computer in it, but that doesn't mean that a disabled person can get to it and use it."
The charity has helped 3,000 people since 2000, and has been lobbying the government for the £3m it estimates it would need annually to deliver its model of training across the UK.
The campaign is timely as digital inclusion minister Paul Murphy announced this week results of the public consultation on the government's action plan, which included proposals to appoint a "digital inclusion champion" and to establish a taskforce to promote digital inclusion across government departments.
There is little in the document that exclusively addresses the digital exclusion of people with disabilities, although it does propose meeting an EU directive to reduce the number of disabled people who are digitally excluded by 50% by next year.
While Murphy says he is "exploring" the need to open up technology to disabled people, Longridge points out: "We need more money from the government for organisations like UCanDoIT because there are only so many people they can help with the funding they have."
The Guardian, 28th April 2009