Bridging the Digital Distance

By The Peer Engagement Team

Our recent virtual conference highlighted a longstanding and evidently widening problem: the growing digital divide between people with vision loss who have advanced technology and know how to use it and those, who have neither technology nor skill-sets (e.g. 57 peers do not have email), and find themselves falling behind the information curve and shut out of more and more digital platforms. Even though PCB strove mightily to accommodate the needs of all peers, be they Zoom adepts or those accessing the conference via a 1-800 toll-free line from a landline, there were times that the lack of an Internet connection and the technology to take advantage of such a connection posed almost insurmountable barriers and embraced three trends that promise to exacerbate the problem: blind services, age, and the limited finances of those on fixed incomes.

Traditionally, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, persons with vision loss who are looking for, have, or want to keep a job or go to school get the lion’s share of funding, bureaucratic attention, and up-to-date technology, while everyone else (the retired, the homemaker, the out-of-work-and-down-on-their-luck) gets crumbs. The former gets expensive and complex technology and the training to use it, while the latter might get some low-tech gadgets and some life skill training. As a result, the former group can access the Internet, use advanced apps and software packages, and interact with an increasingly digital world with a degree of efficiency and effectiveness, while the latter group falls farther and farther behind, gets more and more isolated, and feels more and more lost and abandoned.

The second trend is the aging of America. Senior citizens comprise the fastest-growing demographic in the country and the fastest-growing group of people with vision loss are senior citizens. These people are not interested in getting a job or going to school, so they do not qualify for funding from blindness services. They tend to be resistant to new technologies, so they do not adjust well to digital advances. And they tend to be less vocal and more acquiescent. While many in this group can and do adopt new technologies into their daily lives, too many simply feel overwhelmed, unsupported, and helpless in a world where their options and their world grow smaller and smaller.

Finally, many people in the vision loss community are on fixed incomes and simply can’t afford the latest super-duper iPhone or the most up-to-date laptop or tablet. They might have some technology, but each year it gets more and more obsolete, fewer and fewer companies support their hardware and software, and their accessibility software (screen reader, text magnifier, etc.) finds it more and more difficult to navigate and manipulate an increasingly complex digital environment.

So, what can be done? For a start, PCB can continue to support lower-tech communications platforms like toll-free long distance and ensure usable networks by which regional callers can piggy-back into Zoom sessions through one user with appropriate access. The Technology Team can set up remote training sessions and develop regional tech teams that can teach and learn from each other. PCB could also create a statewide phone tree where all peers are connected to at least two other peers, creating a synergistic communication network that encourages connection, belonging, and engagement. Finally, PCB could conduct fundraising with the sole aim of creating a GAP (Gap Assistance Program) fund to which peers could apply and from which funds could be disbursed to help defray the cost of needed technologies.

Blind services can be more efficient with its technology purchases. Just because a student or an employee wants the very latest with all the bells and whistles doesn’t mean she needs top-dollar technology. Buy students and employees the technology they need to do the job, then spend what it has saved on seniors and people out of the workforce. Maybe focus on iPhone technology because it gives the best bang for the technical buck, especially when one factors the built-in accessibility features and the amazing variety of low-cost and no-cost apps that do just as good a job as expensive stand-alone-do-just-one-thing devices. Blind services could also negotiate a low group rate with a provider and assume the cost of monthly phone service and unlimited data for people who meet financial criteria.

Finally, peers can help themselves. However, you can, band together, research what is out there, see what organizations are providing financial and technical help, and be your own best advocate! After all, PCB can only do so much, and blind services can only do so much. It’s ultimately up to you to be that squeaky wheel, that burr under the saddle, that loud voice of reasonable complaint and thoughtful strategies. And PCB is here to help you develop your advocacy skills. Look for a self-advocacy workshop coming this spring and sponsored by our Peer Engagement Team.

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