Interviewed by Ashley Flanagan
Stephanie Jonsson (She/Her) is a PhD. Candidate in Gender, Feminist, and Women’s studies at York University. Her research focuses on the intersections of aging, queerness, and new technologies. Her dissertation, titled “Queering the Digital Divide” examines the challenges 2SLGBTQ+ older adults experience when accessing online service provisions. Stephanie co-founded ODLAN in January 2021 to address the emerging digital divide challenges 2SLGBTQIA+ communities were facing during the pandemic.
Q: Tell us about ODLAN (Ontario Digital Literacy and Access Network) and how it came to be.
S: When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I was doing research on 2SLGBTQIA+ older adults in long term care and their heightened risk of experiencing homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism, etc. I became very aware of the barriers they were experiencing. At the time, I was also planning events and programs for organizations like Senior Pride Network. It became very clear to me that this shift to virtual space (due to COVID-19) was going to have an impact on folks who were living in long term care. They don’t necessarily have private living quarters. They don’t necessarily have access to tablets. Not all of our long-term care homes have internet throughout the building. So, there were a slew of things that I was aware of, but I was not 100% clear about how it was actually going toplay out in reality. I got a Mitacs research internship in the summer of 2020 where I did a preliminary study on the programs that were being offered over that summer to older adults: how were they being offered, how and where it was advertised? Was there any indication that it might be advertised somewhere beyond just the internet? And who would this be excluding?
Next, I started speaking to program coordinators and I started to go to agencies that provided the tech mentorship to find out what they were up to. To be clear, these weren’t specifically queer organizations. I found that many of these organizations weren’t knowledgeable on 2SLGBTQI+ older adults’ needs or challenges with new technologies. From there, I partnered with the AIDS Committee in North Bay to pilot a tablet lending program. And it was, for them, quite successful while it was running. There was clearly a gap in how we were building digital strategies into our project plans at the non-profit level and in how we were getting technology into the hands of people who need it. I then incorporated ODLAN and partnered with Connected Canadians (who was already partnered with Bruyere, Ride to Connect, and Amazon) to provide nine Rainbow older adults with iPads (with 3 months of data and a digital mentor) for the purpose of accessing online programs.
Now, ODLAN offers a directory of digital literacy and access services along with our own resources on how the digital divide is impacting 2SLGBTQI+ communities. We also consult with a variety of organizations to build the infrastructure and capacity to create 2SLGBTQI+ inclusive online resources and programming. By promoting digital security, equity, and access our mission is to remove barriers to digital literacy and access for 2SLGBTQI+ communities.
Q: Can you tell us more about the digital divide and how it may be impacting 2SLGBTQI older adults?
S: So, the digital divide refers to the gap in who can use and benefit from the internet; and those who cannot. In Western society, there seems to be this narrative that most, if not all, of us have some access to the internet and, and can benefit from it, which isn’t true at all. In fact, there are a lot of reasons why people don’t have access to the internet:
- Environmental barriers, which means having an affirming, private, and safe space to access online programming (e.g., do you have a private space from which to engage in programming?);
- Connection barriers, which is having reliable access to the internet and devices (e.g., financial security, housing, up-to-date devices, municipal infrastructure, etc.);
- Digital literacy barriers, which refers to one’s ability to confidently use and navigate both old and new platforms (e.g., do you have a device that is up-to-date and can handle new software, like Zoom?); and
- COVID-19 pandemic barriers, which refers to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on access to needed in-person public supports and services.
These also include financial and geographic constraints. Across Canada, rural communities continue to lack the infrastructure needed to internet. Added to that many Indigenous communities have to rely on mobile data or dial up which can be quite expensive. This impacts people’s ability to fully participate in the virtual world; and they don’t get to stay up to date with new technology in the way that somebody who uses it every day would. When we’re thinking about 2SLGBTQI older adults living in rural communities they do not have the same access to 2SLGBTQI+ support services like we do here in Toronto.
Additionally, 2SLGBTQI+ older adults in Toronto who live in subsidized housing can encounter unique challenges with taking care of a new device. For example, there was an older adult to whom I provided a tablet and they had called me saying their tablet wasn’t turning on. So, I went to visit to troubleshoot and see what was wrong. The cords were chewed through because there were rats in the building. It was just an added environmental layer that I hadn’t even been aware of when I was starting this work.
Q: What do you want healthcare and social service providers to know about supporting digital inclusion, equity, and access?
S: I want them to know a couple of things:
One, think more deeply about the multiple layers which can lead to digital exclusion, especially when they’re developing an online program that they’re relying on to, for instance, relieve social isolation and loneliness, or to provide virtual gender affirming healthcare. Organizers need to recognize that it’s not a one size fits all model; you’re going to need to meet people where they’re at. For example, a lot of older adults were frustrated by the fact that some service providers require you to be on camera in order to get service. Some people have been turned away from getting services, because they didn’t know how to turn on their camera on, on Zoom, or they didn’t log-on fast enough because they were having tech problems. To meet people where they’re at, healthcare and social service providers should be asking questions on their intake forms, like, “what kind of technology do you have?” And, “what kind of support do you need, if Zoom (for example) is the option for seeing your provider?”
Two, build the necessary technology supports into funding proposals and/or project plans during the planning phases. I recognize that we’re not going to be able to do everything and not everybody can build tablets into their project plans. But, maybe data plan cards? Or think about offering a hybrid model with some things in-person and some things virtual? Asking, “what can we do to identify the solutions that will work for our organization to meet people where they’re at?”
Three, reach out for support! If you know that you’re not the tech service, and you’re not going to build that into your project plans, reach out to the organizations that do provide technology support and see how they can support you. There are existing organizations that have been doing great, great work with older adults to make sure that they stay connected online. For example, Connected Canadians does “Train the Trainer” programs and Cyber Seniors teaches community organizations how to set up computer mentorship hubs. The final thing that I will add is that these organizations can also be partnered with more 2SLGBTQI organizations to learn how to better support our Rainbow older adults—because our older adults might go to them and not feel as supported as they could be. ODLAN was created with this in mind because I believe that to create a more digitally inclusive community we need to work together to put supports in place throughout all different organizations. It’s not just the responsibility of one organization. We want to provide organizations with the resources, tools, and knowledge on how to better support people with virtual programming.
Q: What are some of the resources and services that may be of interest to 2SLGBTQI older adults and/or those supporting them?
S: Our Resource Portal has 197 resources that are located across Ontario. We have a bulk of general digital literacy and access resources that we do our best to keep up-to-date! For example, there are a lot of technology hubs in local libraries. We’ve consolidated them into our platform, so people can find them and see what suits their needs. Our infographics are also great resources that can help healthcare and social service providers get more knowledgeable by picking up tips and resources that would work for their organizations. So, I encourage people to check our infographic page and our YouTube channel.
Q: Where can people go to access these resources and services? How do they get involved?