Enhancing digital literacy: A role for occupational therapy

This post is one of several that I will post in the coming weeks where I will write about the concept of the digital literacy and discuss why I think occupational therapists have a critical role to play in increasing digital literacy in society.  I would like to acknowledge the work of 4 of my wonderful former students in the research of many of these concepts ~ Thanks Nicole Anstey, Erika Bannert, Judy Lin and Sarah Langenhoff. 

Digital Literacy

Digital literacy is defined as having the ability to access and use information and communication technologies (such as internet connected computers and smartphones) that facilitate the individual’s ability to seek information, develop community networks, accumulate social capital, or participate in political activities (Hargittai, 2003).  Digital literacy in the mainstream population continues to grow as high-speed access or wireless access increases, however, for individuals and groups living with impairments caused by physical, cognitive or social limitations the ability to access the internet can be difficult or impossible, thus reducing their capacity to network, find information and be information-literate (Fox, 2011).


Digital Divide

The Digital Divide is defined as “any inequalities between groups, broadly construed, in terms of access to, use of, or knowledge of information and communication technologies” (Wikipedia, 2012).  Schmitz (2008) found that because the Internet and computing technology are continually presenting new barriers to being able to access information and remain socially connected, and also found that this is particularly concerning for persons with physical, cognitive and social limitations.

Chen & Wellman (2003) found that the digital divide has a profound impact on the experience of social inequality as people who are on the wrong side of the digital divide can be excluded from the knowledge economy.  If pre-existing inequalities deter people from using computers and the Internet, these inequalities may increase as the Internet becomes more consequential for getting jobs, seeking information, and engaging in civic and entrepreneurial activities (Chen & Wellman, 2003).


Occupational therapy and ICTs

Verdonck & Ryan found that computers have become integral to completing many activities of daily living in the areas of productivity, self-care and leisure (2008), and it is now common for people to complete tasks such as shopping, bill-paying, watching movies and socializing with friends online.  Up until recently, however, facilitating access to computer technology for helping overcome difficulties with communication, memory, problem solving, dexterity, and mobility, in order to participate in activities of daily living, has been viewed as a specialist area in occupational therapy.

Usually, persons needing support with computer devices were referred to a service where professionals with specialized skills and knowledge would work as consultants to assess and provide technology and training to the individual client and their caregivers.  Due to the highly specialized nature of these services people with perceived low-level needs were rarely seen by an occupational therapist for this purpose and using computer technology was largely overlooked in these types of occupational therapy assessment protocols.


Occupational therapists overcoming the digital divide

Computer technology is used in occupational therapy practice in areas such as with children and adults who have difficulties with handwriting or communication, to encourage social and active participation, and for improving memory (Bainbridge, Bevans, Keely, & Oriel, 2011; Handley-More, Deitz, Billingsley, & Coggins, 2003; Lundqvist, Grundstrom, Samuelsson, & Ronnberg, 2010).  However, perhaps not all occupational therapists are comfortable incorporating digital technology into practice.  In a study of computer-use with older adults, 63% of the occupational therapist respondents reported that they are undecided or are uninterested in exploring computer-use with their clients (Ackerman et al., 2001).  Occupational therapists that address and encourage computer-use for their clients are typically those early adopters, who, themselves, are comfortable with the use of technology.

Using a computer is now an activity of daily living, therefore it is time for occupational therapists to embrace the use of ICTs for access to and understanding information, for completion of ADL tasks such as bill-paying and even for creating and maintaining social networks.  This should now be part of any generalist occupational therapy service, not just in specialized service areas. 


How to integrate digital technology into occupational therapy

There  are four key stakeholders in the transition to overcoming the digital divide; occupational therapy educators, occupational therapy students, occupational therapy practitioners and occupational therapy consumers.  Each of the stakeholders has a role to play, and each works within a context.

The contexts that we need to be aware of in overcoming the digital divide include (these can each be real or virtual):

  • Local (where you live and work)
    • Part of the profile of a local community includes local special interest groups  
  • Regional (groups of similar communities in a geographically similar area who can connect and share resources and skills)
    • Part of the profile of a Regional community is a Regional OT Association 
  • National (groups of communities within a country who can connect and share resources and skills)
    • Part of the profile of a National community is a National OT Association
  • Global (groups of similar communities across the globe who can connect and share resources and skills)
    • Part of the profile of a community is WFOT.  
    • Is it timely for WFOT to develop a position statement on occupational therapy’s role in overcoming the digital divide?

8 thoughts on “Enhancing digital literacy: A role for occupational therapy

  1. This is such an interesting issue. I am an OT who is of an age to be defined as a 'digital immigrant', not a 'native'! I am finally embracing the digital world- I have my first blog going strong- it is about the recent study visit I made to the US to learn about Lifestyle Redesign. I work mostly with older people and fully agree that people who find it difficult to access or use technology are becoming more disadvantaged as many aspects of 'participation' require use of technology.I do ask clients about their use of mobile phones, computers and the internet. It is interesting what a wide variety there is, from 85 year old who are happily texting and skyping, to 65 year olds who have not yet conquered a microwave. I wonder if anyone is researching what the factors are that allow older people to successfully make use of these technologies.I look forward to reading more of your posts about this.Ebby

  2. Thanks for your comment Ebby, I hope to be able to continue posting on this topic regularly as this is a parallel theme to that which I am exploring in my PhD. I'm so glad that you are one of the OTs asking your clients about their use of computers,phones and the Internet :)I definitely agree that we can't assume a person is a “user” on “non-user” based on age. My father (who would be 82 now if he was alive) was using online discussion forums to share information and give support to others who had the same cancer as him (11 years ago!). No one taught him either… he just worked it out!Cheers, Anita

  3. Hi Anita,Great topic. I am researching Information and Communication technologies in midwifery service delivery, and found many midwives use limited digital channels, whereas younger women are more likely to be digitally engaged but lack eHealth literacy skills. If midwives could upskill in this area, and assist/teach women eHealth literacy skills this would have advantages for the new or growing family. Women are usually the health care advocate for family. Your research sounds interesting.

  4. Hi Starpath, thanks for stopping by and commenting. As a Kiwi Midwife you must be aware of Sarah Stewart's work in the area of Social Media and Digital Literacy. Sarah is one of my online heroes. Cheers, Anita.

  5. Julie

    Hi AnitaI am an OT from Scotland, I have been recently asked by my employer to explore and look at ways in which digital technologies such as internet, smart phones, iPads for example, could be adopted in OT practice to enable independent living for adults with progressive neurological conditions and stroke.Where I live there is no direct resource that foucses on this area, there are varying projects that focus on specialised areas such as communication and environmental controls, with some OT's in a rehab setting incorporating the use of apps inttheir practice. However there doesnt appear to a clear or developed pathway/guidelines to encourage OT's to use digital technologies in their everyday practice. I suspect this comes down to service demands that focus on hospital discharge, managing risk at home, fear that using technology within practice – not knowing what it can do and how everyday technologies within the home could be utilised. I find that there is a mix of needs required to be addressed in this area such as adapting built in software, skills training, equipment to support access, using apps to aid independent living and as an activity tool within a rehab setting.I find the concept of digital exlusion very interesting and curious to find out more about the work and research that you are doing in this area.I am encouraged to hear that other OT's are working and have an interest in this area and look forward to reading more of your posts in this area.Julie

  6. Hi Juie, thanks for visiting! Your observations fit with what I have found in my PhD research “However there doesn't appear to a clear or developed pathway/guidelines to encourage OT's to use digital technologies in their everyday practice.”One of my missions in life as an OT educator is to help create that pathway where OTs naturally use digital technologies with clients and for ongoing professional development. Please join our Facebook group OT4OT and participate in discussions around this important topic :)Cheers, Anita

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