It’s easy to talk about the digital divide in terms of generational differences and the overused ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital migrants.’ I used these phrases myself in academic articles and in my book Digital Textuality, citing Marc Prensky (2001), the person who coined the terms. In the early days of the internet and portable devices, stark differences appeared between those aged 40+, who restricted their use of computers to work and personal emails, and youngsters, who seemed to have superhuman skills at thumbing text messages, pirating music and coding their own webpages. But in the world of technology, those days are ancient history, and age is no longer what distinguishes the computer literate from the luddite.
Today we have a new digital divide, one that is less straightforward and harder to joke about. While the power of computer technology and influence of social media are often overstated, if this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that people need computer technology and the support to use that technology to work and study from home and to feel included in their families and communities. Those without access to this technology have clearly suffered more than those with it.
I recently attended an online conference where Dr Jane Seale of The Open University spoke about people with learning disabilities and the impact the pandemic has had on them. Compared with the general population, people with learning disabilities are six times more likely to die from covid. This alarming statistic is being used by researchers while the UK government claims that the death rate is only four times higher. The same government has attempted to explain this away by citing the fact that people with learning disabilities are more likely to have other health conditions (e.g. obesity and diabetes), live in care homes and find social distancing difficult.
What we haven’t been hearing from governments (and it’s not just in the UK) is how people with learning disabilities have been cut off from their carers, whether family members or other support staff, because they have fallen on the wrong side of the digital divide. For the learning disabled, computers can be particularly challenging. Worse still, carers and support workers might also have limited experience with computers. I witnessed this myself a few years back when I was involved in adult literacy training and often went to care homes for the elderly and learning disabled to help support staff improve their literacy. Typically, these carers had mobile phones and could work with apps and images, but stayed clear of written language and computers. While there have been a few stories in the British media about children with learning disabilities being cut off from schooling and care during the pandemic, adults in this group are not being reported. I suspect the media is reflecting society and catering to the interests of their audiences. Dr Seale summed it up when she explained that ‘People with learning disabilities are among the most ignored in our society.’