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 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).
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?