In a world affected by a global pandemic we frequently hear how social distancing and lockdowns have created an increased sense of isolation and loneliness. This has been described as part of the ‘new normal’. This has been part of the everyday normal for people with learning disabilities and autistic people for as long as we can remember. People with learning disabilities and autistic people are often socially isolated and lonely. There is an assumption that people are happy in their own world and don’t want to make friends. Or else people are fearful of communicating with people with learning disabilities and autistic people, afraid of making a mistake in the way they communicate with them or assume communication is not possible. 

Not having access to the internet and devices such as tablets and smart phones can increase social isolation no matter who you are. To compound this, there is often the assumption that people with learning disabilities and some autistic people will not be able to use this technology. Since the beginning of the pandemic we have been proactively seeking grants to ensure this technology is part of the lives of the people we work with. We have trialled different tools and have made a commitment in our strategic planning to continue this work for the next 2 years. 

Digital Lifeline

In 2021 Changing Our Lives was selected to be a community partner for the Digital Lifeline programme, coordinated by the Good Things Foundation and funded by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Changing Our Lives distributed 36 tablets to people with learning disabilities who didn’t have access to the internet or a suitable device to get online. We supported people to develop their digital skills and to use their tablets to connect with friends and family, including some who hadn’t seen loved ones since before the pandemic started. We used people’s new devices and their emerging skills to link them in with other Changing Our Lives projects, including our Speakeasy project. Although many people are still learning new skills and gaining confidence with their tablets, early outcomes included people using their tablets to keep fit, shop online and even get back to work from home.

Speakeasy

In 2020 we developed our Speakeasy project in Sandwell, which built social connections and promoted digital inclusion for people with learning disabilities, autistic people and their families. The Covid-19 pandemic has magnified the isolation and digital exclusion that people with learning disabilities and autistic people experience in their everyday lives. When the majority of the community had shut and many people were told to shield, people’s lives had been completely disrupted. Using Zoom, we facilitated a series of virtual “Speakeasies”, including a Drag Bingo, Christmas Cabaret, Valentines Cabaret, Pub Quiz and Pamper Night. 

Fitbit project

After the success of our Digital Lifelines and Speakeasy projects, and knowing that people with learning disabilities experience significant health inequalities and sometimes are not given opportunities or access to healthy life styles, we decided to develop a project where people have access to Fitbits and use these to become both more active and connect with their peers or the wider community. This work is funded by Active Black Country and is an opportunity to explore how this technology can impact on both the overall quality of life of people and result in improved health outcomes.