A charity that helps disabled people to exploit IT more effectively has won lottery funding to expand its commercially sponsored "Switched On Communities" initiative to all areas of the UK.
The scheme initially kicked off in July 2006 when DSG International, the parent company of PC World, Currys and Dixons, asked charity and community-based organisations to find ways of making technology available to disadvantaged groups in society.
AbilityNet was one of four beneficiaries of DSG International's community-investment programme and will receive £600,000 over the three-year life of the project. Since September 2006, it has recruited eight other community partner organisations — five in England, one in Scotland, one in Northern Ireland and one in Wales — which have been trained as experts in IT-accessibility issues.
The community partners have, in turn, brought around 128 local, voluntary organisations on board to provide IT training to people with all kinds of disabilities. The training ranges from learning how to surf the internet to undertaking a certified European Computer Driving Licence course, comprising seven modules. These include working with word-processing and spreadsheet applications.
"The community partners were already working in training with a disability focus, but didn't... have access to lots of kit. But now they're able to reach out to voluntary and community organisations in their region and provide them with accessibility equipment, training and support, so it's a kind of trickle-down effect," said Dianne Cockburn, head of projects at AbilityNet.
The new lottery grant, meanwhile, will enable AbilityNet to extend the scheme to those areas of England — London, the North East, East and West Midlands — that are currently not covered, and interviews for suitable community partners are now taking place. Funding was awarded under the Big Lottery Fund's Basis programme and is reported to be in the region of £700,000.
The money will also be used to launch a national publicity campaign to support the project. AbilityNet intends to develop materials centrally that will be distributed locally by partners in order to boost awareness of the scheme, which has so far helped 12,000 individuals.
One person that has already gained from the initiative is Marlene McCrorie, who lives in Glasgow. She has spina bifida and, having in the past worked as an exhibitions organiser, has now been unemployed for some time.
McCrorie became involved in the Switched On Communities scheme after being introduced to Momentum, a local disability charity, by a member of the Glasgow Disability Alliance.
McCrorie attended a taster event and, after later being interviewed by Garry Ryan, assistive technologist and tutor at Momentum, decided to undertake a course in word processing to help her find a new job.
"I felt that, if I wanted to start work again, I would need to know word processing as everyone wants it these days. They said I could do an exam in it and it took weeks to persuade me but, as I sat down, I just thought: 'If I fail, I can always do it again'," McCrorie said.
McCrorie's worries proved unfounded and she received "an excellent pass" for the word-processing exam. "You've no idea how much it means. If you're in school and are treated like a complete idiot, there's a lack of confidence in doing new things, but everyone at Momentum was very approachable and, no matter what you got stuck on, they never treated your question like it was stupid," she said.
Although she has had to suspend her studies for the moment due to a recent bereavement, McCrorie intends to undertake further modules to learn how to use databases and spreadsheets, and is hoping to become an office manager for a friend who is about to open a business providing alternative therapies.
Undertaking the course has also resulted in other spin-off benefits. "It's a really nice learning environment and takes a lot of the fear out of it. Garry was amazing and made me feel very encouraged. You learn at your own pace and it really helps to build up your confidence," McCrorie said.
The correct use of assistive technologies has also helped reduce the lower back pain she has experienced since having an accident. "They sorted out which chair and desk I should use and the chap worked with me for about two hours to get it right. Within two weeks, the pain had almost disappeared because I learned how to sit properly. I now sit on my own settee with three cushions behind me and I can get out of bed with no help," explained McCrorie.
As for DSG International's sponsorship of the programme, this forms part of its wider community-investment programme. Clare Brine, corporate social responsibility manager at the company, said: "The primary motive is to bridge the digital divide. Millions of people have access to the internet but a lot of people don't, and, when you look at those socio-economic groups, it's generally people on low incomes and the old."
As a result, the goal "as a business that sells technology" is to empower as many people as possible "to experience the life-changing effects that many of us take for granted".
In order to measure the success of the initiative, each of the local voluntary organisations provides its regional community partner with statistics on the number of people that have benefited and how, while also writing up individual case studies. DSG International, in turn, intends to use nominated case studies as the basis for a national awards ceremony, which will explore how the scheme has changed lives.
The other three beneficiaries of the organisation's community-investment programme are the e-Learning Foundation, the Foyer Federation and Eco-Schools. The e-Learning Foundation helps schools in deprived areas to set up home-IT access programmes for children with no domestic access to learning technologies; the Foyer Federation offers homeless young people accommodation, training and personal support; and Eco-Schools provides energy-efficient technology and services to educational establishments.