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RNIB volunteer encourages inclusivity for older people through technology

Padma sitting on a sofa smiling

Padma Cheriyan is 82 years old and has macular degeneration and cataracts. Padma joined RNIB as a Campaign Co-ordinator in 2009 and volunteers locally in Milton Keynes for several charities. Feeling frustrated with the lack of support available for visually impaired people learning technology, she set up her own group to support and promote digital literacy among the visually impaired, with help from the Technology for Life team and some local volunteers.

“I lost my sight to macular degeneration nearly 30 years ago, and had to give up work. Gradually my sight has deteriorated, to the point where I can’t even read large print.

I’m a volunteer Campaign Co-ordinator for RNIB and I'm on the South-East action group. I’m an active member of Milton Keynes older people’s forum, as well as running groups for people who are visually impaired. Until the lockdown forced me to stop running the groups, I was running four groups for the locally visually impaired: a yoga group, tai chi, ballroom dancing and technology. Fortunately, technology helps me to run the technology group even after the lockdown - until we can meet face-to-face, it’s once a month virtual meeting.

Passionate about learning

I’m absolutely passionate about learning. I’m not a technology savvy person, but I'm learning whilst helping other people learn to use a smartphone. Whatsapp connects me with my international friends, and I also talk to them on Facetime on my tablet, where I can see a magnified picture. I download books and magazines to my phone and listen while doing the chores around the house.

During the Covid-19 outbreak, I count my blessings that technology allowed me to keep connected with family and friends, and keep abreast of the news. With my phone I could text a quick message to family and friends, who were caught up in lockdown and cheer them up.

Running a technology group with help from the Technology for Life team

As a visually impaired person, I’ve found it almost impossible to find suitable training in technology that I could benefit from - videos aren’t much use and many IT teachers don't know how to support someone who has sensory loss. This is what led me to set up an IT group specifically for blind and partially sighted people in my local area.

I organise talks by different organisations like Sight and Sound. Running the technology group, I depend on TfL for support; they speak to the group and demonstrate different gadgets and apps, like AI, Seeing AI, Be My Eyes.

Before the lockdown we ran a project for absolute beginners to learn digital skills, who didn’t know how to use any device, and that was quite successful, so we hope to start it again this year. We lend them the device and get them to do hands-on learning - using Apple phones, tablets and iPads. If something feels good for them, then they can go and buy the device. It was so good to see them learn technology that will help them to use technology to lead an independent life. I'm now more confident using technology - I have an iPhone, and use apps like Be My Eyes quite a lot.

Lost without technology

If you require something nowadays, you’ll always be told to go online, so if you can’t do that you're lost. When I was under treatment for the local hospital they used to ask me, to register myself on the hospital patient portal. However, the hospital website was not accessible for the visually impaired. I have some tech-savvy friends and even they couldn’t access it. So when I raised this with the hospital, the project manager sat with me and she couldn’t access it either.

Also, banks are now closing their branches. So in the whole of Milton Keynes, which is a fairly large town, there’s only one branch of my bank, Santander, and every time they keep asking, why don’t you go online. Without technology life is very difficult. It’s scary if you don’t have the skills.

Recognising the need for support

I don’t think the government is doing enough to spread digital literacy, especially among the visually impaired older generation. Digital literacy is very important these days, it's independence. But there are so many websites that aren’t accessible for the blind.

Some people are so frightened that’s the problem – visually impaired older people want training, somebody sitting next to them, rather than virtually or having instructions or over the phone, it's not easy.

Visually impaired older generation feeling excluded

Though many of us can learn to use technology as we age, I know that digital exclusion is more poignant among the older generation, who can feel intimidated by technology and find it hard to get to grips with it. What makes things even harder is that one in five people over the age of 75 have sight loss, and I know from experience that their learning opportunities are very limited.

I’ve had several blind and partially sighted older people tell me how they would love to be computer literate, but don’t know where to find help. Unlike younger people who have grown up with mobile phones and are comfortable learning from one another, that isn’t always the case for people who are less mobile or isolated. So, I think a different approach is needed to enable more people to embrace the opportunities technology has to offer.

I was telling Madeleine the other day, my four year-old granddaughter, that I couldn't read a story to her. She said, “why don’t you use the magnifying on your phone?” At that age, they take to it so easily.”