Henshaws Digital Enablement Service: Impact of Covid-19

As part of our Community Services that we offer to people with sight loss across Greater Manchester, our Digital Enablement Service supports people to access both mainstream and specialist technology. This is through 1:1 assessments and training, and our monthly Tech Talk groups. Our Digital Enablement Team also creates content for our Knowledge Village which can be accessed by anybody globally.
Mark Belcher, who manages the Digital Enablement Team, and is also the voice and face of many of our Knowledge Village videos, explains the impact of Covid-19 on our Digital Enablement Service. He also talks about our membership within the Greater Manchester Digital Inclusion taskforce.

Mark’s Comments

‘We feel really privileged to be a part of Greater Manchester’s Digital Inclusion Taskforce, alongside Rick Burgess at the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People.

Our collective aim is to promote the independence and inclusion of disabled people in society, and to challenge the discrimination disabled people face in their daily lives, not just in the physical world, but in the virtual world that is being created.

Prior to March 2020, our service was busy. Post lockdown, demand for our service increased significantly for us, like many other charity organisations.

The needs/gaps within the organisation changed as we moved into the various phases of lockdown. The demand for our support increased dramatically at a time when we had to adjust where, when, and how to deliver our existing and new services as a direct result of Covid-19, e.g. home visits, telephone buddy and check-in service.

As you can appreciate, there was a higher demand than ever before to connect with others, with many of our service users feeling isolated and their mental health declining as the pandemic continued and showed no sign of improving.’

Response to Covid-19

Our response to Covid-19 was to contact the local sight loss community to understand their needs, and that helped us to prioritise funding for services.

To ensure we were able to deliver an effective service from the home and office, we invested in our front-line infrastructure, such as more telephone line licences and computers, to be able to work effectively from various locations.

Like many organisations, homeworking became the new way of supporting our service users.

The impact of technology in lockdown

Technology has been available for people living with sight loss for a while, but there was a significant shift and overnight it became a real necessity. People who hadn’t embraced technology before Covid-19 were getting in touch and asking us how we can get them connected and/or keep them connected.

Some of these people had volunteers and family members helping them to manage their affairs, from reading mail, managing their medication, to shopping online.

An example was a person who lived alone and was surviving on soup as she couldn’t read her microwave meal instructions to cook it safely. Another service user was very distressed as they could not read their mail. This person usually visited a community centre for someone to read it for them, but it had to close.  The anxiety of missing bill payments or hospital appointments became increasingly a concern for them.’ – Mark

About the team

Our Digital Enablement Team supports people to access the digital world. However, sometimes we need to remind people that we are also here to enable people to access the ‘printed’ world too.

We support people to access books, newspapers, food, medication, health messages and all the stuff that gets pushed through our letter boxes.

The technology we use cuts across mainstream and specialist technology.

Two men with boxes of Optelec magnifiers, boxes of Amazon Echos and iPads

Funding support during Covid-19

Unfortunately, there were lots of people that couldn’t afford to invest in technology that would maintain their independence.

We decided to apply to Trafford Council and The Greater Manchester High Sheriff’s Police Trust for funding for digital magnifiers. This is technology that allows the person to magnify any text and adjust the magnification with ease. It also provides better colour combinations, contrast, and a larger viewing screen.

We also received support to give away Amazon Echo devices, which included a year’s worth of Wi-Fi.

In total, we received approximately 35 Optelec Magnifiers, 30 Amazon Echos and 10 O2 hotspots and Wi-Fi. Getting Wi-Fi to be included was extremely important for our service users. The funding officer from Trafford Council was very supportive and understood the importance of keeping people connected.

Trafford Libraries service also contacted Henshaws to get advice on the accessibility features of their new loan devices, namely Chromebooks. We trained their staff and delivered training to anyone with a visual impairment that was issued a Chromebook.

Following this we have been working with Trafford Housing Trust and donated digital hand magnifiers to their partially sighted residents.

We also turned to our grant providers to purchase digital magnifiers and iPads so we could issue and train our Patient Support and Enablement staff to deliver basic accessibility demonstrations, including one or two specialist applications, designed to support people with sight loss.

Amazon Echo displaying Henshaws' phone number on the screen

Mark’s final comments

‘Our mantra is that ‘it is everyone’s responsibility to keep a look out for funding’ – we are fortunate to have a fantastic fundraising team, which includes Trusts and Grants specialists. I know some charities do not have this luxury; I would say it is a necessity, because it’s a real skill!

Our success is teamwork, working collaboratively and really understanding the services we are trying to develop and/or maintain, together with a deep understanding of the requirements of a successful bid and the responsibilities thereafter.

Another thing to be mindful of is not to chase the cash that might compromise the actual work you are doing and doing well. This includes duplication; we are advocates of signposting to already established services, and not trying to duplicate.’ 

If you live in Greater Manchester and would like support from our Digital Enablement Team, or know somebody who would like support, please visit our Digital Enablement Service page for more information about what we offer. You can also give us a ring on 0300 222 5555 or email info@henshaws.org.uk.

You can also visit our Knowledge Village to discover the online content our Digital Enablement Team produces.

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