By Jule Ann Lieberman CLVT/CATIS Vision Loss Resource Team
Many of you have heard on the news and various talk shows about a gap in access for seniors and persons with disabilities in the electronic information age. This has become even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic where so many were isolated in their homes: unable to meet socially, visit a doctor office, or perform such routine tasks such as shopping and banking.
Some examples of problems that arose due to lack of electronic access include medical offices who reduced the in-person appointments available and began relying on telemedicine. Patients were sent an Internet link through a text message on a smart phone or in an email message to connect virtually using the Internet and using the camera of the smart phone or computer/tablet. This allowed the medical doctor or medical staff member to see you face to face without risking health during a pandemic. Many medical insurance plans will not pay doctors for visits other than in-person or using an Internet platform. Phone calls alone cannot be billed to your insurance provider.
Another example is spending time with family and friends. Phone calls are great, but family and friends can gauge your physical and mental health by seeing your face and general demeaner which phone calls cannot provide. Some studies have shown that using a video phone provides benefits for the senior citizen or person who has some vision to feel more connected to whoever is reaching them. Families have met over the video platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet and Facetime, made possible by devices connected to the Internet.
What has caused this gap or digital divide?
Here are some possible reasons and suggestions to consider.
Costs of Devices
Seniors and persons with disabilities frequently are on a fixed income and budgets cannot allow for purchase of devices. One possible solution is to investigate free device options such as the Connect with Tech program at TechOWL. This program provides individuals who do not have any computers or tablets in the home an opportunity to receive a computer tablet to connect to the Internet and send and receive email messages. The computer tablet is one based in the Android operating system which includes options for large display, magnification and screen reading by TalkBack built into this device. For more information about Connect with Tech call: 215-204-0101 or TechOWL main number at 800-204-7428 Monday through Fridays. In addition to Connect with Tech, some of the Centers for Independent Living are distributing free-of-charge the Apple iPad tablet. Check with your nearest CIL if they have this.
If considering purchasing your own computer tablet, there are options available. Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF) can assist with a cash loan. If you qualify as low-income, a no-interest loan can be obtained. If your income is above the low-income level, you can still borrow the funds, but a small interest rate will be applied as you pay them back. TechOWL has a small grant of $200 from the Virginia DelSorto fund which can be used to lower the cost of a device and cash loan from PATF. Contact PATF by calling 888-744-1938 to ask about the cash loans and TechOWL at 800-204-7428 for application for the $200 grant.
Cost of Internet
Internet fees can be burdensome for some budgets as well. The Affordable Connectivity Act (formerly the Emergency Broadband Access Program) helps to reduce the monthly fees for Internet Access. Comcast Essentials is an example of one such lower cost program providing for Internet access for as low as $9.95 per month if you have a child of school age or are a senior citizen. For options to locate a low-cost Internet provider in your region call: (877) 384-2575.
Public libraries and many commercial locations like fast-food restaurants and coffee shops have public access to the Internet. You can bring your computer tablet with you and access the public Internet.
This comes in two types of fears. The first comes from lack of exposure or experience using technology. Although you may have never used a computer or computer tablet, you have likely used an electronic device today. From your coffee maker to the microwave, and even your phone, you have used an electronic device to perform a task. Computers and computer tablets perform tasks for you. Getting familiar with a device, no matter what the function, can take a little time and orientation. There are resources such as friends at PCB, services from a blindness agency and senior centers who can get you started. You are never too old or disabled to learn something new. The satisfaction of learning a new way to connect with others will far surpass your fear.
The second fear revolves around the notion of “cyber space” and its dangers. Indeed, there are bad actors out in cyber space that can cause havoc, but this truly can be minimized by learning about safe Internet access. Just like you would not disclose to a stranger your personal information, you should never share this information to a source that you cannot verify or trust. For example, The Social Security Administration or the Internal Revenue Service will never contact you by email or from a message on the Internet. Always pay close attention to who is contacting you and for what reason.
The three factors described above can be overcome. Consider how access beyond your door can be as simple as a keystroke or tap away. It involves you taking that first step, finding your resources and supports and make the connection. Investigate your options and don’t be caught in the digital divide!