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Home loan library iPads help people with disabilities get online

An innovative outreach and home loan scheme from Leeds Library and Information Service is helping people with disabilities across the city to get online at home.

The pilot project, Connect-Ability, was funded by Tinder Foundation’s Libraries Digital Inclusion fund. It has tested how lending tablets along with personal support with home visits can help to engage isolated, housebound or disabled people with both the digital world and the world around them. The service has proved popular and is already feeding into the council’s wider plans for digital inclusion.

Charlotte Self is Digital Engagement Librarian at Leeds Library and Information Service, and in charge of the Connect-Ability pilot. She says: “We wanted to think differently about digital inclusion, and how we could make our activities work for the very hardest to reach audiences. Leeds Library and Information Service already has a Library At Home service for older and disabled people with over 500 members, so we decided to add a digital element to that service.

“We know from previous tablet taster sessions that many disabled or elderly people find tablets easier to use than a traditional computer because the touchscreen is so tactile and responsive. A mouse and keyboard can be much harder. We also know that our Library At Home service users are very interested in books. This was a chance to tap into that interest and introduce technology to this client group in a meaningful way - showing them our online catalogue, eBook and eAudio service so they can choose their own books independently and read or listen to them on the iPad. We also have 90 Library At Home volunteers who visit our service users, and some of them have volunteered to be of the Connect-Ability scheme.”

Leeds Library and Information Service invested in 23 iPads and 4G SIM cards. Library At Home customers can borrow an iPad for three weeks, just like their books. The loan can be renewed for further blocks of three weeks if no-one else is waiting for the iPad. A member of library staff or a volunteer takes the iPad and offers an initial training session at home to help people get started. Follow-up visits are arranged to troubleshoot and support continuous use.

Charlotte continues: “Our approach was very much led by each individual we went out to see. After going through how to turn the iPad on, and the basic buttons and homepage functions, we’d have a chat to see what each person was interested in, so whatever came next was relevant to them. Books were a key hook, but we wanted to link the offline and online worlds for them in other ways too - so they could see the benefits of being online and how it could add value to their lives.

“For some people, that’s been about keeping in touch, for others it’s just been about information and research. Being able to find the answer to a question, watch the episode of Coronation Street you missed, or look up something your GP has said and get instant answers is actually really empowering. It’s something the rest of us very much take for granted, but it’s been one of the most powerful outcomes.”

One of the learners Charlotte’s been out to visit is Molly Hartman, who is almost 90. Molly says: “I’ve used the library all my life, but when the walk became a bit too much I signed up to the Library At Home service. It’s been great - and I feel absolutely honoured to be lent this iPad as part of the service.

“I won a laptop a few years ago but I prefer the iPad because it’s much easier to use. It’s been wonderful because I can get eBooks on there. I find it really nice that I can look for books and take my time, but also read a little bit - a sample chapter. It’s also great to read in bed because it’s lit up and I like the way you can alter the type, so you can make it larger.

“Charlotte has also showed me how to get all the different apps and open them up - I really have loved it.

“One of the best things I’ve done with it is to learn how to use FaceTime to see my granddaughter Monica in Australia. When I first saw her on the screen it was absolutely lovely! Monica was thrilled too. Once I bought a new coat and I was so pleased with it I showed it to Monica on FaceTime - and she’s shown me around her garden. I’d never have seen that otherwise. My whole family think it is absolutely wonderful that I’m online, now. I do too!”

Not everyone has taken to the tablets or to the internet like a duck to water, and the biggest job for volunteers and library staff involved in At Home delivery has been to give users enough confidence to use the devices between visits. Charlotte explains: “Having a device at home, and having a volunteer or member of staff to help them use it for the first time has certainly helped our Connect-Ability learners to continue by themselves. But it’s also meant that families can step in to support them between our visits because the device is right there. And once they’ve seen how well their relative gets on with it, several have promised to get them their own tablet for the next birthday or for Christmas!”

As well as home visits, Connect-Ability has also seen group sessions run in community venues like care homes or social clubs. Library staff reached out to community groups working with disabled people, supported living complexes and other partners to offer sessions, which typically run across several weeks. Here, Librarians used mobile Wi-Fi hotspots to support 10 or more devices, meaning people who have their own tablets can bring those to the sessions.

“In groups it’s obviously harder to tailor what we do to individuals,” says Charlotte, “but the peer-to-peer support and camaraderie also add to the learning experience! What’s more, the whole project has really raised the profile of the library service within the council. People are coming to us wanting to hear more about what’s worked and why, and how that can be replicated elsewhere.”

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