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We are the digital champions, my friends!

A year ago Lionel Williams, 53, wouldn't have said boo to a (computer) mouse. Now he's a digital champion for Blackpool charity Disability First - and helping others get online.

We are the digital champions, my friends!

"Digital and social exclusion are closely related. Both lead to inequality of opportunity."
Alan Reid CEO Disability First Blackpool

We are the digital champions, my friends!

From paying bills online to switching utilities suppliers, keeping in touch with friends and booking an appointment or ordering prescriptions online modern life seems to rely on an internet connection for all but 10 per cent of households… at the latest count.

And that's according to the latest stats and facts on internet access for households and individuals from the Office of National Statistics.

While 90 per cent of households are now deemed to have an internet connection not all within that household will have access to the internet.

Take Lionel Williams, 53, of Blackpool. A year ago, Lionel wouldn’t have said boo to a  computer mouse. Now he’s a digital champion – out to teach others.

 He used to ask his son to “go on the computer” for him. “I didn’t really like to ask – but I didn’t dare do it myself,” he admits.

“Today I’m determined to help others who are frightened of computers or don’t know what to do about it. I was like that.

“Being able to go online safely can help with health, finance, getting about, switching utilities, looking for jobs, staying in touch with friends and family – and more.

What’s not to like?”

Lionel is one of four newly qualified digital champions trained up by Blackpool based charity Disability First – with a final six-hour training/assessment session run by the Volunteer Centre, Blackpool Fylde and Wyre. The charity's Building Better Opportunities ReachIT project is funded by the National Lottery’s Big Lottery Fund and the European Social Fund. Courses run until the end of next year.  They most aim to reach the over 40s, unemployed or economically inactive - on benefits, disabled, or retired. Above all, they are free, and conducted - mostly - at the Whitegate Drive site. 

Lionel admits: “It boosts your confidence.  I found the online stuff hard at first. But the training gave me the tools, knowledge, to do it properly. You know where to look and how to do so safely. You find out how to spot something that isn’t safe and guard against scammers.”

Since becoming computer savvy Lionel, a volunteer at Disability First, has saved on utilities, looks at job opportunities online - and now feels part of a much wider community. But he offers some guidance for social media.

You’ve got to be careful.   Don’t befriend people you don’t know. Make sure your privacy settings are set to the correct standard. Don’t give away too much, date of birth, place of birth, personal stuff.  Most people put everything on there. They take pictures outside their house. They announce when they’re on holiday.”

Online safety is paramount says the charity's digital engagement officer Martin Croysdill  who hosts training through the charity's Building Better Opportunities ReachIT Digital Inclusion project.

Martin adds: “I always say use trusted services. Google to look something up, for example.  If you’re on a banking site, check it starts with https and that everything corresponds to what you would expect.  If it’s an email, ensure they address you by name and not sir or customer - and look at the address. Some clever scams are convincing, but the email addresses are far from legitimate.  If in doubt, delete, don’t follow links or use phone numbers in the email.”

A big plus for Disability First is helping others learn how to access and use health services on line. 

Martin adds: “Most doctors have gone digital and you can order prescriptions and book appointments online. Part of our training is showing people how to register and use those services.

“Our idea is to create a network of digital champions to go out into their own communities and help others."

Disability First is now now taking a much closer look at its own website, social media and online presence.

The charity celebrates 25 years in November – and that party’s now coming to social media.

“Self-evidently we’re doing something right,” says CEO Alan Reid who has taken to Facebook like a reality star to Love Island.   “But we need to reach out to more.”

He knows social inclusion is a big deal in and for Blackpool.  It’s all too easy for disabled people to feel on the fringe of society.

“Digital exclusion and social exclusion are closely related,” adds Alan. “Both lead to inequality of opportunity.”

Even those who own and use PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones and other devices are not necessarily computer literate.

Mentor Martin adds: “There are lots of people just playing games or on social media when they could be doing so much more.  

“If you ask people to come and learn about computers they don’t want to know. Tell them to come and learn how to save money and it’s a different matter. They don’t need to have a device themselves – many come here and use ours or go to the libraries.”

One of the charity's new digital champions Marilyn Hardman is keen to reach those who might struggle with technology. “We can get around anything. We can super-size text, adapt computer systems for you use, change the colouring, use a trackball mouse – handy if you have arthritis – or a touch screen. We can access keyboards for the visually impaired.

“It’s only when you put the training into practice that you can see the difference it makes to people, the benefits it brings.”

Marilyn’s window on the world is a laptop.  “The course gave me the confidence to buy one.  I went three or four times to the store, but the pressure selling put me off. I knew what I wanted, my daughter got her phone out and we ordered online.  It was delivered to the door. I was so excited. I had a coffee, unpacked it, and set it up myself.  Since then I’ve done loads. I shop on line, I search for things – I love eBay. I’ve changed utilities and saved so much money.  

“When I had a problem with my back I did all my Christmas shopping online, all delivered to the door, all the food shopping – I had short dated stuff delivered in one online shop but it’s much easier to complain and attach pictures online.

“I do jigsaws on line. I visit art galleries. I love art. You can find knitting patterns, join online clubs, forums, find places that are accessible and so on.

I want to show people there is so much more to it than shopping or banking or social media.”

The courses are available at Disability First until the end of next year – and the setting is as far removed from a formal classroom as it’s possible to get.  The IT suite overlooks the award winning garden – and there’s a teaching café  on the doorstep too.

Disability First is one of several services accommodated at the Centre for Independent Living on Whitegate Drive, Blackpool, but it’s been a catalyst for change within a council-owned building which has become a vibrant community hub since it was opened in 2009.

For more information call Martin Croysdill on 07791 563 107 or (if you can!) email him on martincroysdill@disabilityfirst.org or drop in at the centre, 259 Whitegate Drive, Blackpool FY3 9JL or call on (01253) 472201

Follow the charity on https://www.facebook.com/disabilityfirst and on Twitter @DisabilityFirst.