The ability for all citizens, regardless of age, to participate in the growing knowledge society is an absolute necessity for social inclusion. Digitally-unengaged citizens suffer from unequal access to information, reduced opportunities for interpersonal communication, lack of access to online public services and increased costs of goods and services compared with their online counterparts.
For many older people, keeping in touch with family members in faraway places is extremely important. Digital technologies such as internet audio and video telephony can make this easier and more affordable, resulting in increased contact. The internet is growing in importance as a place to access information about public services and even to access the services themselves. Health and welfare services, local library services and voter registration are examples of the kinds of services that are now available online, reducing or removing the need for older people to travel to public offices and queue up. People who access public services online spend an average of 69 minutes less on each transaction . Commercial services are now often much cheaper online than offline, so that a person who cannot access the internet is significantly disadvantaged financially. Research commissioned by the NCBI Centre for Inclusive Technology in 2008 revealed that online access to goods and services results in an average annual saving of €358 for shopping, €32 for banking and €61 gross interest on a one-year deposit of €5,000.
As well as the significant benefits for older people themselves, increased digital engagement also benefits businesses and the public purse. Businesses benefit from having access to a wider pool of potential customers and from the reduced costs of transacting online. Public finances benefit in two ways. Firstly, when social and economic exclusion are reduced, the costs associated with supporting dependency are also reduced and people are more able to contribute economically. Secondly, utilising online channels for interacting with citizens can lead to huge efficiency gains and cost savings. A report from the European Public Administration Network eGovernment Working Group during Ireland’s EU presidency in 2004 cited research into the costs to public bodies of transacting with citizens through traditional and electronic means. The research found that the relative cost of transactions via paper, telephone and online self service were 100:10:1 . Compared with online channels such as the Web, it is 10 times as expensive for Government to deal with citizens by phone and 100 times as expensive via traditional paper-based forms. From this point of view, full digital inclusion of older people is essential in order to save costs of public administration. For every person who cannot pay their motor tax, apply for their welfare entitlements or submit their tax return online, the Government must interact with them through one of the other more traditional channels, at a cost of 10 or even 100 times as much. It would be madness to let this situation persist.
For a citizen to interact with online services and resources, certain building blocks must be in place. These are digital connectivity, digital literacy and digital accessibility. Digital connectivity is about the availability of broadband, mobile connectivity and digital TV at an affordable price. The positive ageing strategy should address the growing digital divide by urging the Government to put in place universal, affordable broadband access. Digital literacy is about older people realising the benefits of digital engagement and having the skills required to engage. They need to be able to carry out basic digital functions, such as finding information on a website, filing in an online form, sending an SMS text message and using the digital TV red button to access interactive services. These basic digital literacy skills should be taught to all older people. Initiatives like the BenefIT funding scheme run by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources are vital to ensure the provision of digital literacy training for older people at a local level by organisations that understand their needs. This grant scheme has been severely cut, from €3m in the last round to €285,000 in the present round. It should instead be increased. Digital accessibility is the third building block of digital inclusion. A person might have affordable connectivity and adequate digital literacy skills, but if they find that the online services they try to interact with are inaccessible to them, the chain becomes broken at the point of delivery and digital engagement is not possible. Inaccessibility of websites and online services is a serious problem right now. These are often designed in a way that makes them difficult to use for many older people. People with reduced vision, hearing, motor or cognitive functioning have particular difficulties. In the most recent study of website accessibility in Ireland, from 2006, it was revealed that, of 41 websites of public bodies and political parties, only 2 met the international standard ‘WCAG AA’ accessibility criteria. Anecdotal evidence since then indicates that this situation still persists. Most public and private websites in Ireland have serious accessibility failings that make them difficult or impossible to use for many older people.
The situation with websites is now being repeated with Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT). The draft DTT receiver specification produced by RTÉ does not even specify that remote controls should be designed to be easy to use for people with reduced vision, dexterity and motor control. Such a lack of consideration of usability and accessibility for older people threatens to make public service television inaccessible to many after analogue switch-off in 2012.
To achieve even a minimum level of digital inclusion, the Government needs to put in place firm plans and resources to implement the obligations agreed in the various European and international agreements and initiatives to which Ireland has signed up. The first of these should be the achievement of the targets in the Riga Ministerial Declaration on e-Inclusion. This is to halve the gaps in internet use and digital literacy and achieve 100% accessibility of public websites by 2010. The European Commission Communication, “Towards an accessible information society” calls on Member States to achieve these targets by stimulating greater levels of innovation and deployment in e-accessibility and stepping up work on making public web sites accessible. This should be actioned. It should not be forgotten that inclusion is also an issue of rights. The right of older people to be given the opportunity to participate fully within society. To this end, Ireland has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which introduces e-accessibility as a fundamental right, on a par with the accessibility of the physical environment and transportation. Article 9 requires States Parties to take appropriate measures to:
“Promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet;
Promote the design, development, production and distribution of accessible information and communications technologies and systems at an early stage, so that these technologies and systems become accessible at minimum cost.”
Television is essential for social inclusion. The European Parliament has described access to television as a “fundamental right” and “of fundamental importance for democracy, freedom of expression and cultural pluralism”.
Television is one of the main sources of information, education and entertainment for older people in Ireland, particularly those who are physically and socially isolated. It is especially important for those who are vision impaired, deaf or hard of hearing and who face difficulties accessing printed or spoken media. Accessible and affordable television is therefore an important element of the social inclusion of older people which the Government has committed to in the National Disability Strategy, the Communications Sectoral Plan and the National Strategy for Social Inclusion.
Like the web, Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) presents a prime platform for the delivery of public services to citizens. For example, the UK’s National Health Service delivers health information and advice through its ‘NHS Direct’ via the internet, telephone and Freeview DTT. This reduces the number of unnecessary GP visits paid for by Government. If online channels such as DTT are inaccessible, interactions must use the other more traditional channels, at much greater cost. Ensuring access to DTT therefore has the capacity to deliver huge cost savings for Government.
For DTT to be fully accessible to older people, it should be affordable and easy to set up; equipment must be designed to be easy to learn and use for people with sensory, physical or cognitive impairments and programmes should come with subtitles for the deaf and audio description for blind viewers.