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Digital equity for older Kiwis

Much has been reported on the positive impacts of returning to workplaces and to in-person gatherings. And though these articles cite the value of enriched social experiences, not all Kiwis stand to benefit from a return to ‘business as usual’. While a shift to the traffic light system will allow for greater social interaction, many older New Zealanders and Kiwis who are not in steady employment will be excluded from the migration back to our usual workplaces.

Skillet was co-designed by older Kiwis and Kiwis with disabilities. We continue to be guided by our community. Seniors whom we interviewed for this piece shared concerns about the return to our old routines. Some touched on their continued isolation while others spoke of ‘nothing truly changing’ in a society in which they have long felt invisible. When queried as to how older Kiwis could be better included as New Zealand slowly moves out of lockdown, one recommendation came up frequently. That recommendation was greater digital inclusion on the part of our communities: for local businesses do better to capture the attention of their 65+ year old audiences. Not just in terms of product design, marketing or customer service but in the digital experience offered to older consumers.

Digital engagement with seniors has grown over the course of lockdown as we turn to apps and the internet more broadly to track COVID, to receive vaccine passes, to keep on top of the news, to order food and to see what’s being offered in our areas. A perception of older Kiwis as digitally illiterate, however, still lingers in December 2021. This perception is outdated and unhelpful. A study conducted by Waikato University in 2014 concluded that Kiwis aged 65+ were motivated to use new technologies to stave off isolation and to maintain their independence. This group also reported a common sense of stigma among seniors who felt embarrassed that they were not as digitally-savvy as they perceived their peers to be. This stigma, it is reported, is a powerful motivator.

[Image description: photo of a woman with short, grey hair. She sits at a wooden table, in front of a laptop and a teacup.]

A more recent paper led by Auckland University of Technology found that members of residential aged facilities, i.e. retirement villages, were most vulnerable to this sense of digital desertion in spite of wanting to embrace new technologies. This study pointed out that many digital platforms fail to account for impairments commonly reported among senior citizens: hand tremors, arthritis and decreasing vision.

One of the factors behind accessibility barriers in New Zealand is a lack of data. Currently, the fullest data sets we can access comes from the US. Particularly as this data relates to the cross-section of older people with disabilities. In households where one or multiple members have a disability, assistive technologies are a powerful means of overcoming the physical and social barriers in a world that is often unintentionally ableist.

A 2016 survey of American adults showed that people with disabilities shared lower enthusiasm for new devices (i.e. latest release iPhones) than their peers without disabilities; perhaps not altogether surprising given how frequently we see accessibility being side-lined in favour of style. A separate study of Americans with disabilities and carers of Americans with disabilities, however, reported positive reactions to Sharing Economy apps such as TaskRabbit, Thumbtack and AirBnB. Among the benefits of these digital platforms, interviewees cited convenience, time efficiency, and the range of options available to meet their needs.

While digital equity among people 65+ years will increase naturally over the next five years, the opportunity to build digital confidence and inclusion exists here and now. Skillet’s aim is to help bridge this divide. In just a few days, we’ll enter 2022 and start the year over. Over the months ahead, we will continue to receive input from older adults who are curious about Sharing Economy apps like Skillet, but who may have questions about doing so. And along the way, we’ll continue to consult our network of allies – i.e. local councils, recreation centres and digital inclusion advocates – who share our vision for a more age-friendly and inclusive Aotearoa.

[Image description: photo of a man with white hair wearing headphones which are plugged into a tablet. He appears to be in a library.]

21 December 2021


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