A digital disability?

Richard Fitzgerald, Digital Pioneer Fellow and Academic Clinical Fellow in Special Care Dentistry at Barts Health NHS/Queen Mary University London, asks if the sector is supporting people living with a learning disability to adapt to digital life following the Covid-19 digital acceleration.

You can find an Easy-read version of this blog here.

Like it or luddite, digital tech has become an everyday activity. Many restaurants and bars require you to download an app to simply order food. An ever-increasing number of households are turning to apps for meal delivery and now even grocery shopping. Banking, healthcare, clothing – all expanding rapidly in the digital field. Beyond functional applications alone, social connections are moving digital. I’m sure almost all of us relied heavily on online video calls to maintain that basic human need of social connection during recent Covid-19 lockdowns.

All these are great advancements and are certainly here to stay in a post Covid-19 world. But imagine for a second that you needed some help with digital skills, for example to log into a video calling app to talk to a friend or family. Is that help available? With this move from digital being “extra” to “necessary”, are we supporting those most at need to engage digitally?

Learning disabilities and digital

Learning disability is defined by MENCAP, the UK’s largest learning disability charity, as “a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life.” (1)  Nowadays, these activities inescapably include digital skills. Yet, many organisations highlight a concern that people living with a learning disability are being excluded from the benefits of a digital-enhanced life.

For example, The Good Things Foundation found that people living with a learning disability are missing out on the benefits that digital technology can bring, in spite of their own reports of the value that digital solutions (such as internet access) can provide (2). Although missing out on the benefits, 61% of people with a learning disability reported owning a smartphone. This suggests that people living with a learning disability have the hardware and so could benefit immensely from support in using it.

An outstanding research project and report, Keeping Connected and Staying Well (3), is ripe with findings exploring the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on support for people living with a learning disability. It found that technology was being used to combat loneliness, to improve health, and to supply information on how to stay safe. However, there were barriers also including access issues (e.g. where mobile data was used for internet access, as opposed to wifi, with associated costs) and a lack of support. The last finding was that supporting people living with a learning disability during the lockdown has highlighted the technological capabilities and potential that this population has.  

First-hand insights

Interestingly, there was a similar finding in my own digital implementation project (supported by the DigitalHealth.London Digital Fellowship Programme). People with a learning disability were supplied with and trained on an accessible app to self-record healthcare information, the “HearMeNow” app (Maldaba Ltd., (4)). A similarly high rate of general app usage was found in evaluation – 20/38 participants were already using apps before the project. However, only 3/38 were using apps for healthcare functionality. Lastly, in my own experience of providing dental care to patients with learning disabilities, smartphone and tablet use is very high but primarily for entertainment purposes such as music, videos, and games.

My contention is therefore that to truly support people living with learning disabilities we must include digital support, and also that supplying this support may be more straightforward than previous thought. Many people living with learning disabilities are already using apps, smartphones, and computers and so simple, targeted, and adapted support can encourage many more to utilise these tools for day-to-day needs.

Looking to the future

Thankfully, this is starting to be realised by many organisations, although there is a long way to go to fully include the learning disability population. For example, The Good Things Foundation provides an excellent “Learn My Way” website (5) with accessible online skills training. One Digital UK has a fantastic webpage with tips and hints for family and staff supporting digital learners with a learning disability (6).

So, what can you do to help? Ensuring that all digital technologies are as accessible as possible would be a great start: is your website or app available in easy-read or plain English? Have you asked someone with a learning disability or learning disability organisations to try using your app and website? These things may seem small but can make a big difference to ensure that everyone can be included in this new, digital world.


  1. What is a learning disability? MENCAP https://www.mencap.org.uk/learning-disability-explained/what-learning-disability
  2. Doing digital inclusion with the most excluded: People with Learning Disabilities. The Good Things Foundation & TalkTalk. https://www.onlinecentresnetwork.org/sites/default/files/disability_handbook.pdf
  3. Jane Seale (2020) Keeping connected and staying well: the role of technology in supporting people with learning disabilities during the coronavirus pandemic, Milton Keynes, The Open University. https://www.open.ac.uk/health-and-social-care/research/shld/sites/www.open.ac.uk.health-and-social-care.research.shld/files/files/Keeping%20Well%20and%20Staying%20Connected%20-%20Full%20Report.pdf
  4. HearMeNow app website https://www.myhealthguideapp.com/
  5. https://www.learnmyway.com/
  6. https://www.onedigitaluk.com/knowledge-hub/developing-a-digital-champion-project/digital-inclusion/working-with-learners-with-learning-disabilities

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