Co-designing Inclusive Digital Zones in Barking & Dagenham
“I’m blind so I can’t use the internet”
The quote above is from a survey that our Careline team carried out in 2020. Mentioned in our Digital Inclusion Report of the same year, it showed that to truly ‘Fix the Digital Divide’ (Helen Milner OBE, Good Things Foundation), we had to ensure that our most vulnerable, in this case, those with disabilities, had access to the internet, devices, and digital skills.
In this blog, I share how we co-designed the Inclusive Digital Zones in Barking and Dagenham and our reflections on insights, challenges and barriers.
The Barking and Dagenham Context
Digital Inclusion threads through achieving our Corporate Priorities. Around 15,000 residents in Barking and Dagenham are not online and 25% of residents do not have all the ‘essential digital skills’ for life. This is linked to poverty, age, social isolation, and disability (Digital Inclusion in Barking and Dagenham Report, 2020:6). In Barking and Dagenham, 29.8% of households in LBBD have at least one person who identifies as disabled, which is the highest proportion in London (Census 2021).
For this reason, we created the Inclusive Digital Zones to help ensure that disabled people and those that need extra support can get online, are not digitally left behind, and possibly, excluded from being able to access benefits for a better life.
Co-design and collaboration
We were determined to provide a facility that was not only useful but had an enabling and welcoming environment. To do this, we were conscious that the experts were not us, but residents who would be using this equipment. Hence, using a Human-Centered Design approach, we worked with our amazing partners and residents starting from the ‘inspiration, ideation and implementation’ design process. A massive thank you to our residents, Good Things Foundation, Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), LBBD Sensory Team, Kendrick Morris, LBBD IT team, LBBD Community Solutions, Universal, and LBBD Ease Staff Network.
Residents told us that they wanted to be part of the community and be amongst everyone else. They did not want to be stuck in a separate room, no matter how specialist it was. They also wanted to gain digital confidence and use the knowledge, skills, and connection to expand their everyday lives, like making friends / volunteering / applying for work / engaging with other useful services and so on. The best was in our busiest community hubs – Barking Learning Centre and Dagenham Library and be located on the open floor. Not only would the residents be amongst the community but have a network of co-located partners that could support them.
We all agreed that the Inclusive Digital Zone:
- Provide accessible digital technology to those with disabilities.
- Train digital champions to help residents to be confident online and develop digital skills.
- Remove the barriers to digital technology by means of location, hardware, software, and digital skills.
- Support people with cognitive, sensory, and physical disabilities to be digitally included.
- Help residents with disabilities to access services and opportunities that are now mostly accessible online.
The zones were launched mid-October 2023, and our ambition is that everyone is able to confidently use the internet to better their lives, improve their skills, make connections and feel part of the digital age. The offer for residents in the zones can be found on the Barking and Dagenham website.
Here is a heart-warming story from a young person who used the zone.
Cain (not actual name) is 21 years old. He came to the UK from Brazil when he was 18 years old to live with his extended family because his parents had passed away. His extended family threw him out because they believed he was ‘stupid and lazy’. Cain became street homeless. He now lives in sheltered accommodation.
During this time, Cain was attending the Barking Learning Centre, where he got on well with staff. Staff felt something was not right with his cognitive ability and made a referral to Adult Intake. He was diagnosed with a learning disability.
Cain comes to the library often and gets on well with the staff. Staff asked Cain if he wanted to use the Inclusive Digital Zone computers, to which he replied that he had used it before, but he did not realise that he could use them regularly. He said that he really liked these computers and thinks that they are great. He can speak English but cannot read very well. The special cursor helps him to read the words on the screen, which he said is helpful. Cain is going to college from 22nd November 2023 to do ESOL and believes that these computers will really help him with his course.
Reflection and learning
Setting up the zones was not an easy feat. It took a long time, with a lot of going backwards and forwards but never taking our eyes off the goal. We also know that this is an ongoing piece of work. Not only to encourage engagement, meaningfully support people using the zones but funding for maintenance and enhancing the offer, especially in these times of fiscal pressures. Here, is our learning:
- How to make accessible technology compatible with council public access computers.
- There is a large range of IT available. It is hard to cater for each individual need so we purchased equipment that would help most people.
- People with disability know what they need – this may seem obvious, but professionals are not good at asking, they do what they think is best. These Inclusive Digital Zones were co-designed with people with disabilities who advised, tested, and gave feedback so we could get it right.
- Cost – accessible IT equipment is very costly for a resident to purchase. With us purchasing the IT and making it available for public use, it will enable access for many.
- Expanding and sustaining the Inclusive Digital Zones – has to be done through grant funding.
- Engaging users – whilst we have this equipment, take up has been slow. We are working with our Comms, internal teams, partners, digital champions, and residents to publicise the zones.
There are no barriers just challenges:
- Engaging residents with disabilities to use the zones. The Inclusive Digital Zones only officially launched on the 18 and 19 October 2023. We are doing a campaign to promote them, plus asking professionals to use the space when they are working with clients.
- Accessing funding through grants so we can build on what we have and create an Inclusive Digital Zone of library technology and outreach for all to use.
Moving forward, we know that so much can be achieved when doing it together, so we are keen to work, learn and develop with other partners and local authorities, so please feel free to connect.