25 February 2016
Digital inclusion builds stronger foundations for housing associations - and protects revenue!
More services like Universal Credit are being transferred online – but at what cost to providers and end users? Mark McCusker, CEO of assistive technology specialists Texthelp highlights the importance of digital inclusion for housing associations and their residents.
To describe the ongoing rollout of Universal Credit as an interesting challenge for UK housing associations and their residents is something of an understatement. Exclusively administered online, it puts huge pressures on many vulnerable people who until now have only been familiar with making benefit claims face-to-face with an advisor.
Claimants must apply for and manage universal credit online – a major deterrent right at the outset for people who for various reasons are unable or unwilling to use the Internet. Payments are made monthly into a claimant’s bank account, who in turn pays the landlord themselves. For any resident who’s less than digitally literate it’s a daunting prospect.
At Texthelp our own survey (conducted November 2015) shows unequivocally that housing associations see Universal Credit as posing a significant challenge to their future revenues. And it’s no surprise that most providers we polled identify lack of access to the Internet – together with a shortfall in digital skills for many claimants – as the biggest obstacles to claiming credit online.
The reality is that almost half of the UK’s adult population who do not use the Internet live in social housing. A lack of confidence online is compounded by several factors: old age, physical disability and literacy challenges like dyslexia, plus the additional burden for many people of speaking English as a second language. Neither is it always an easy task earning the trust of users on low incomes who may be unwilling or distrustful of sharing personal and financial information online.
As a consequence, housing associations countrywide are bracing themselves for Universal Credit’s arrival with the costly provision of extra resources and training for staff and residents. Many are already establishing digital hubs within their communities, serving as focal points for residents to access the Internet and learn valuable digital skills in a welcoming environment. The choice for housing associations is stark. Without making these often significant investments, their revenues are endangered as tenants struggle with a system that seems unfairly loaded against them.
‘Digital Inclusion’ describes the use of technology to improve the lives of otherwise disadvantaged people. But what does it mean in practice for housing associations? Simply providing access to the Internet is a start – as is training for residents who may have never encountered a computer before.
But what’s also needed are the tools to engage residents, encouraging them to make use of Universal Credit and other online services. And this is where assistive technology can play a hugely powerful role in promoting digital inclusion. Low-cost PC screen reader software can literally ‘speak’ a web page out loud to help users with dyslexia, poor literacy or visual impairments. Some products can even translate online information into a range of languages, providing support to readers with English as a second language. Tools like our award-winning Read&Write can do all of this and more, highlighting and magnifying words and sentences on screen, making online forms and instructions easier to follow.
It looks like Universal Credit is here to stay. With minimal extra investment in assistive technology, housing associations can protect revenues – and provide a more welcoming service – by ensuring that digital inclusion embraces their residents who need it most.