Hft | Supporting people to stay connected through technology

Many people experience loneliness and isolation and the Covid-19 pandemic has only emphasised this further as regular social activities have either moved online or worse, been cancelled. But for people with learning disabilities who might also have difficulties communicating with others, being lonely and isolated can happen even when people are around. While many of us take being digitally connected for granted, and have found the transition to ‘online’ to be an easy one, for many people including people who access support services this has proved more challenging.

Hft’s Personalised Technology team have, over the past year, supported the distribution and implementation of over 300 tablets and smart devices to ensure the people we support can stay connected with families, friends and services during the pandemic.

The team has worked with individuals to personalise the set up around an individual’s communication needs, hobbies and interests. And as part of the Digital Lifeline project, funded by the DCMS, the team has worked alongside AbilityNet, enabling them to reach the most digitally excluded, providing assessments, training, and support for individuals as well as their families and/or supporters.

We’ve shared the stories of some of the people who have benefitted from this technology below, to show just how much of a difference the right technology in the right place can make:

“I’m really enjoying taking photos on my tablet, and love showing them to people. My support staff help me join zoom calls, and I had a call with a good friend who used to live in my house. I’ve not seen him for a long time, I miss him a lot and I loved talking to him and seeing him on the screen, it made me really excited and happy. We’re going to do a call now every week – my support staff will help me. My support staff are going to help me set up a zoom call with another friend who I’ve not seen because of the pandemic. I’m really looking forward to seeing their faces on the screen, I will be so happy. I really like my new tablet.”

George takes a moment to show his tablet in action

“I live on my own so I haven’t been able to see many people over the last year. I like my tablet very much. I enjoy playing games and doing jigsaws, and I’m learning to use Zoom on my own so I can join some bingo calls and see other people. I’ve enjoyed seeing people on the screen and chatting to them. The tablet makes me feel better, it makes me really happy and helps break up my days a bit.”

Pauline enjoying getting connected

Tony has been working with staff on a regular basis to use his tablet. He has skyped his family who live far away which he has really enjoyed, and plans to make this a regular thing. Tony struggles with expressing thoughts and feelings so the Personalised Technology team have downloaded a communication app that allows users to add comments to images so that when the picture is pressed, the comments are read out loud. The app has been great as the team have added staff photos, emotions, and quick phrases to help Tony better communicate.

And they have plans to add many more. The team has also downloaded a balloon popping game to help Tony to tap the screen rather than pressing for a long time, and are currently looking at apps that could help with rotas, cleaning and shopping. Tony’s favourite app so far is the official Arsenal app which he checks daily for football updates and games!

Tony having fun learning to play the piano

Sector Pulse Check report

Released earlier this year, Hft’s Sector Pulse Check report underlined the challenges experienced by people with learning disabilities in accessing an increasingly digital world. Despite the reliance on technology throughout the pandemic, many of the care providers who responded to the survey reported digital barriers which prevented them from ensuring that those they support remain connected.

One key barrier cited was a lack of digital skills among the individuals supported, which three quarters (77%) of care organisations reported as a large constraint. Second to this, the loved ones of the people who receive support often lack digital capabilities as well, with this factor being listed by 66% of survey respondents as a large barrier. Other highly selected barriers are the cost of purchasing technology and the digital skills of staff.

While nearly all providers have made some efforts to ensure those they support remain in touch with family, friends and loved ones throughout the pandemic, significant digital barriers hinder this, meaning people with learning disabilities are at risk of feeling lonely and isolated. As we slowly understand the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic – which may include moves to not only socialise but also work and access goods and services online – it is more important than ever that social care providers and people with learning disabilities are provided with the tools and skills to be included in this rapid shift.

Find out more about the Hft Sector Pulse Check report, including our recommendations on what needs to change to better ensure that people with learning disabilities are able to access technology that boosts their independence – and that they are able to access support to get the most out of it: