This story is in partnership with Innoweave.
When the coronavirus pandemic shifted daily activities online, people like Steve Whyte found it virtually impossible to continue with their pre-pandemic life.
For two decades, Whyte, who uses a wheelchair and has challenges with communicating, had a board on his wheelchair tray with a variety of words that he would point to, when needing to communicate. At the Ottawa Foyers Partage (OFP), a non-profit that works with adults with multiple disabilities, where Whyte would frequent, staff members tried for years to convince him to turn his physical board into a digital one.
During the pandemic, Whyte found himself isolated — not being able to meet in person, and unable to communicate using technology either.
A facilitator at OFP, Steve Crane, who worked closely with Whyte, noticed the impact of the pandemic on him. “He was tremendously social and loved going out with his friends, and a lot of that was off the table. He regressed at home because his tech wasn’t supporting him,” Crane says.
During the lockdowns, Whyte began meeting weekly with Crane, who created a replica website of Whyte’s physical board. The website, displayed through a tablet which is placed on Whyte’s wheelchair table, allows him to click on words which can be read through a text-to-speech software or copied and pasted to fill out forms online, and send messages.
Crane, who taught himself to code to create this solution for Whyte, says Whyte is now able to send emails by himself, and that it’s positively impacted his mental health. “I’ve seen change in his frame of mind.”
While OFP closed its doors on March 16, just days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the organization continued to offer one-on-one support to clients like Whyte who needed it, and were comfortable meeting in-person.
“Like many places in our sector we had to stop our community programs,” says Lindsay Gillis, a program supervisor at the non-profit. “We turned to virtual programming… right away, but we also quickly realized that there was a significant number of people with disabilities who couldn’t access the programming and were being left behind.”
Nearly a year later, OFP continues to run their technology and social programs, predominantly online, in a shift to adjust to the ‘new normal’ — and staff like Gillis have been working to create programming that is truly accessible to the organization’s diverse client base.
Barriers to digital programming
While some of OFP’s clients required ‘quick fixes’ in order to access the organization’s online programming, like having a team member assist them with setting up an email address and accessibility features like voice command on their devices, others have more complex needs.
“Some of the barriers are significant and it does take a lot of time trying to research and see what would work best for them,” Gillis says.
According to Gillis, some program participants with cognitive or physical disabilities have a hard time physically using technology devices independently. Others face barriers like acquiring devices and the often high costs associated with adapting them to their needs.
Last summer, Gillis says team members were able to meet with some clients outdoors, but as the weather got colder, this was no longer an option, posing an additional challenge. “People with disabilities are still being left behind in some regard,” Gillis says. “The outcome [of this service] is that they’re not feeling socially isolated and they’re still able to stay connected with family and friends…. and their community.”
The pandemic has been particularly isolating for some of OFP’s clients who, for health reasons, have not stepped out of their homes in the last year. “You can imagine how lonely that can be,” Gillis says.
While OFP shifted some of their programming online, staff members like Gillis were keen to have external support to revise the organization’s services and offerings during the pandemic and pursued funding opportunities to make this possible.
By September, OFP received microcoaching by Innoweave to “focus on how to make sure people weren’t being left behind,” Gillis says.
Through this support, OFP received coaching from Manu Sharma, a business strategist who coaches social impact organizations.
Sharma, an Ottawa-based consultant, began helping OFP in making their services accessible while their ability to offer in-person support was limited during the pandemic.
“It’s not just as simple as putting (programs) online,” Sharma says. “You have to think about access for them to be able to consume it.”
He says this should be a consideration particularly when considering the demographic that most non-profits support. “If you’re working with racialized groups and vulnerable communities, you have to think: not everyone will have a smartphone or iPad. I know people will think this isn’t a problem in Ottawa, but it is.”
Developing new programming for the ‘new normal’
In response to these needs and through Sharma’s support, which involved coaching Gillis and the OFP team on their business model, the value they offer clients, and how to validate the need for new programming, OFP developed Shared Connections. This new program provides remote and in-person assistance to OFP’s clients — adults with disabilities — who experience software and hardware issues. By troubleshooting these technical issues, OFP’s staff empower their clients who can then use their devices to attend virtual healthcare appointments, shop online, and complete other important daily tasks which have shifted online during the pandemic.
In addition to the new Shared Connections program, OFP transitioned much of its in-person social programming to online offerings during the pandemic, as they offer virtual bingo nights, cooking and crafting classes, and dance and movement sessions.
Sharma envisions that when it is safe to resume OFP’s in-person programming, this new social programming will continue, in order to provide technical and digital support to adults with disabilities — particularly as some aspects of daily life may continue online, beyond the pandemic.
After Shared Connections launched, other organizations in Ottawa, including the Ottawa Public Library and Service Coordination Supports, took note and reached out to OFP to discuss collaborations and referrals, in order to support more adults with disabilities who encounter accessibility issues.
Now, several organizations in Ottawa who offer online programming — and have noticed a decline in attendance by individuals who face accessibility barriers — are working with OFP in eliminating those barriers.
“We’re very open in sharing what worked and what didn’t work,” Gillis says.
Since OFP stopped running the Computerwise program during the pandemic, which was delivered in a group format in-person, much of the technical support they currently provide is one-on-one, which is less financially accessible. While the organization’s work is subsidized, some clients pay fees to participate in programs.
In addition, Gillis says the challenge with online programming is that it doesn’t provide respite for caregivers, unlike the in-person programming, which allowed for them to take time off during.
However, OFP has found success in coordinating efforts with other organizations. For example, when their clients have general tech-related questions, OFP will refer them to Cyber Seniors, which supports seniors in using technology, and is currently helping people book COVID-19 vaccination appointments in Ottawa. When it comes to any accessibility-related challenges however, OFP handles these issues in-house, given their expertise.
Gillis says the organization’s person-centred support plays a key role in shaping their programming for their clients. “It’s not our place to assume what they need. They’re the ones facing these challenges and barriers so it’s very important to get this information as we go because the challenges can vary per individual,” she says. “It doesn’t mean everyone is having the same problem and it doesn’t mean the same solution will apply to everyone.”
When establishing the program, Sharma supported OFP to create feedback channels so that the organization could respond to client needs. Through a questionnaire, they ask clients about their experiences during the pandemic and on their ability to socialize and connect with others digitally.
Instead of generalizations or assumptions, Gillis says the organization “asks them information up front” about their abilities, such as their ability to fill out an online form or make a phone call, in order to provide support as necessary.
OFP has continued working with Sharma beyond the Innoweave coaching grant, tapping into their internal budget, which Gillis says is valuable in order to have an external perspective on strategy that prioritizes person-centred support.
Challenges remain, new services a possibility
While solutions like the Shared Connections program enable greater accessibility, barriers such as accessible hardware and software costs still pose as a major obstacle. This challenge was amplified during the pandemic, as OFP clients are no longer able to access the organization’s computers and other technical devices due to restrictions on group gatherings which has impacted in-person programming.
“We can’t solve everything,” Gillis says. “We’re still finding ways around those barriers.”
The organization is considering starting a lending library with low cost or no cost accessible technology to support their clients in overcoming the accessibility barriers that have emerged during the pandemic as society has begun increasingly relying on technology.