Online Today: The continuous digital journey

Posted: 
12 May 2017
Photo of blog author and RNIB Design and Evaluation Officer Tracy Dearing

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In this month's Expert series blog Tracey Dearing, RNIB Evaluation and Design Officer, shares learning from the evaluation of Online Today and highlights the continuous journey towards getting, and staying online.

Having significant sight loss myself, I’ve experienced first-hand the transformative effects of digital technology; in how I work, communicate, find information, manage money and shop. The advances in technology and accessibility features have opened up new ways of doing things that allow me to stay independent, as a mother, as a partner and professional. I am a fairly confident technology user, however as my sight deteriorates (like so many other blind and partially sighted people) I must continually develop my skills to stay online. This often means learning about new access technology, today for me it’s ‘voice over’ and ‘Siri’. 

Over the last year I have lead on the evaluation of Online Today, a £5.8 million Big Lottery funded project. The project aims to support people with sensory loss to get online and ensure that people with sight loss are not shut out of the opportunities new technologies offer. The programme offers a range of face to face digital inclusion activities, which include a combination of group sessions and one to one support.  

People with sight loss struggling to stay online.

As part of this evaluation, we‘ve learned that a significant majority of people engaging with Online Today are lapsed users, so have been online in the past but struggled to maintain their online engagement as their sight deteriorated. As part of the evaluation many people who were lapsed users told me that they were motivated to take part in Online Today to get back online and gain the benefits this brings. One person wanted to continue with their hobby (genealogy), another wanted to get back control over their finances and others wanted to communicate independently with their friends and family without relying on others to help.

Learning from the evaluation also showed us that the majority of people were already online before they accessed Online Today; these people were really keen to maintain their online participation. Many told me they were struggling to use their devices to access the internet, read websites and use their applications as their sight deteriorated. One person could no longer see the fonts on particular websites and had started to use a hand held magnifier. However, this wasn’t an adequate solution and prior to Online Today, this person was considering giving up the internet all together.  

Access technology the key to online participation.

In regards to digital, access technology refers to any item or system (magnification, voice over, siri) that enables a blind and partially sighted person to use digital technology (smartphone, tablet, labtop). Access technology is generally built into digital devices, and many people we talked to had little or no knowledge about it prior to their participation in Online Today. And, for those who had heard about it, they didn’t have the access technology skills to use it to get back online or improve their online experience. Through Online Today, many blind and partially sighted people had successfully developed skills to use access technology to navigate their devices, get online or build up their online participation.

‘I knew absolutely nothing about accessible technology. I never had any reason to use it. I knew they existed, like Siri and things but I had no reason to use it. I was set back to zero after losing my sight. In fact it was worse because I knew what I wanted to do but couldn’t. I had no knowledge of the apps. Whatsoever...before [meeting digital skills officer]'. Online Today beneficiary. 

Blind and partially sighted people are beginning to realise that sight loss doesn’t have to mean loss of the internet as well. They can see the potential of access technology for growing and maintaining their online participation. Furthermore, as digital technology advances new ways for blind and partially sighted people to use devices and access the internet will become available. 

A continuous journey

We now understand that blind and partially sighted people’s journey towards getting online, staying online and doing more online is not linear. In fact, the journey may never end, but like mine, take a more continuous path. As a consequence, people with sight loss require flexible ways to learn about access technology and develop the necessary skills to use it. These interventions need to be available for people when they need it and be tailored to the individual’s needs and sight loss. Because when people get the support they need it can be life changing. 

‘The ability to use a computer again with the help of magnification software like supernova has allowed me to secure an office job. I had to retire from my previous job after losing my sight...My wife helped me with the job application. But the skills to use magnification was very important to secure the job - to be able to do the work itself’ Online Today beneficiary. 

Further resources

Read the key findings and find out what we've learned from the first two years of the programme.

Learning so far

Find out more about Online Today - www.rnib.org.uk/online-today

For more research exploring accessible technology visit our Technology and television research page