The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of us all. For many of us, the adjustments have been coming to terms with zoom-filled work weeks and an increase in binge-watching trashy Netflix programmes. But this has predominantly been the experience of the fortunate. Throughout 2020, we have seen the digital divide widen at a rate few could foresee. Despite a surge in innovative service delivery and digital support across the UK, a large number of people are still cut-off from the ‘new normal’ because of a lack of digital access.
Today, 10th December, is International Human Rights Day. It is a worldwide celebration of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - the most well-known human rights document. There is a special emphasis this year on ‘building back better’ from COVID-19 and ensuring no one is left behind or further marginalised during the recovery process. Digital inclusion is an essential piece in this puzzle to ensure that ‘building back better’ is better for everyone.
Some people are still struggling to meet their essential needs and access important information. Access to the internet is often seen as a luxury and a privilege. But, in fact, it is a necessity. It is a gateway for people to exercise and enjoy many of their human rights, including their right to education, work, social security and housing. During both COVID-19 lock-downs it has been the way for many to engage with services, connect with friends and family, and receive much needed emotional support.
Over the past 9 months, the Better ConNEcted campaign has seen the impact of digital exclusion first hand across North East England:
People on universal credit are expected to update journals and log benefit changes online. This has been, for many, impossible when libraries and other services have been closed
Asylum seekers on university scholarships have been unable to study and take exams online as they cannot afford decent data packages (due to low Asylum Seeker support). On top of this, they are ineligible for many university digital support programmes due to their immigration status
Disabled people have struggled to access food due to poor accessibility functions on supermarket websites. They have been unable to book online food delivery slots as many websites do not use correct accessibility software
Homeless people have been left without support, being told to access services online. However, charities and libraries who typically enable internet access have had to reduce their hours or to shut their doors completely
The internet has increasingly become the main way people find job opportunities, apply for benefits and even order prescriptions. Improving digital inclusion will mean that people can more easily engage in day-to-day life and, therefore, realise their human rights. Internet access opens the doors to information and education, and the means to stay involved with community activities. It provides opportunities for people to use new technologies and apps that allow them to engage with others and connect with services. Those who are digitally included are empowered to take an active stance in monitoring and exercising their rights.
Closing the digital divide requires investment of money, time and ideas. We need innovative solutions to accessing equipment, providing affordable internet packages for those on low-incomes, and improving digital skills and accessibility. Many organisations are already doing this on a small scale and have seen remarkable impacts. We want to see this happening on a larger scale.
Ultimately, digital inclusion enables people to be more in control of their lives. It is time to change the narrative around digital inclusion. It is time to promote access to the internet as an essential part of everyday life that is crucial to our human rights. Together we can change the narrative. Together we can become Better ConNEcted.