The COVID-19 pandemic has led to profound effects on the society and has hit particularly hard on social services. During the first wave that affected the European Continent in the spring, in many Countries services for people with disability were among the first activities to close down and the last to get permission to reopen. In this period, users were not able to benefit from services and, together with their families, had to endure a long period of confinement with the risk of isolation and marginalisation.
However, moments of crisis are also occasions to experiment new approaches and methodologies in the provision of services and here, new technologies have made the difference. In this context of difficulties some of our members decided to stay in touch with their users and invested time and resources to experiment the use of new digital tools.
One of the most interesting initiative in this sense is the OpenGroup “IO DIGITO AT HOME ” (I can type from home) project, born during the lockdown period to implement a set of online digital services for their users to fight the risk of isolation and marginalisation. This is a “spin-off” of the “IO DIGITO, communicate without limits” developed by SLOW PRODUCTION®, the OpenGroup brand that transversally qualifies all centers that welcome adults with disabilities, and that opened the path of OpenGroup to digital innovation. In particular, thanks to the collaboration with ASPHI Foundation of Bologna, OpenGroup was able to bring multimedia and assistive technologies (sensors, facilitated keyboards, scanning systems, touch interfaces, tablets, smartphones) in all its services. This has meant for the operators and support staff a personal enrichment in terms of skills and, in parallel, greater flexibility in the educational proposal through new customizable tools that allow users to be directed to the use of cutting-edge digital technologies.
As part of this initiative, during the first lockdown OpenGroup and its team of Digital Coaches activated the “IO DIGITO FROM HOME” project with the aim of supporting people with disabilities during the confinement. Users and their families agreed without hesitation to be part of this project, and made every effort to become more familiar with digital devices (PC, tablets and smartphones) and with some communication software. In particular, they have learned to use virtual rooms like Jitsi rooms and video calls on WhatsApp and Facebook (for this reason many of them have opened a profile), Google Meet, and so on… OpenGroup team was very enthusiastic about the results of this project, which helped several users in a difficult moment and increased their autonomy, self-determination and social participation. This project has been further developed with the setting up of digital classrooms. The activities developed in the classrooms focus on emotional and physical well-being through entertainment activities (games and quizzes) and creative and practical workshops. These classrooms are free to use for the registered users, and give beneficiaries the opportunity to choose the activity. Users can enter autonomously or with the support of educators according to their skills. An evaluation is planned in which data will be collected in order to further improve the offer.
The experience developed by OpenGroup has recently proven particularly useful also for other members of our network involved in the IN-CUBA Project. IN-CUBA (Incubators for CO-productive Enterprises and Social Inclusion) aims at fostering social inclusion by developing an incubation methodology based on co-production addressed to people with intellectual disability. To do so, several co-productive focus groups involving people with disability, their families, and local administration were planned in order to discuss and test the methodology. However, the arrival of the second wave of the pandemic, and consequent confinement measures, had an impact on social services for people with disability, hindering the possibility of organising co-productive focus groups. Nevertheless, all project partners were determined to move ahead with the planned activities and work online when physical meetings were not possible.
Thanks to the experience developed during the first lockdown, OpenGroup offered to share its approach and methodology and organised a webinar to explain to the partners how to better work online co-productively with users and their families. The event was very helpful and gave the partners a way of effectively working online with people with intellectual disability.
Apart from helping partners in reaching the project objectives, these activities are also breaking down communication barriers and developing new innovative practices in ways of engaging with people with intellectual disability. This has been highly significant in terms of access to healthcare with the introduction of virtual consultations and health screening; it has been essential to ensure that people with intellectual disabilities, who already experience significant health inequalities, are not disadvantaged by these approaches which, although introduced with patient and clinicians safety as a priority, may have limitations for those unfamiliar with access to and the use of these technologies.
Aware of this and of the lack of guidelines and references with regard to these online activities, ARFIE has decided to collect data from the online activities that partners are organising in order to draw up guidelines on the organisation of co-productive virtual focus groups involving people with intellectual disability. These guidelines will be also shared with other partnerships wishing to work online with people with intellectual disability.
All this represents a constantly evolving path that requires further and continuous training both for operators who, in different capacities and levels, work together with people with disabilities, and for people with disabilities who are learning to use the different tools available. New technologies represent an important tool with a great potential in term of improving the quality of social services and the quality of life of the beneficiaries of these services. For this reason, we have decided to organise a dedicated working group on this important topic in order to launch a discussion and collect further data and experiences.