A diverse group of people of different abilities from towns and villages across Warwickshire is building an online friendship network with lockdown as its catalyst.
The 10 members of Warwickshire Empowerment Service (WES) would likely not have met had it not been for isolation. Rather than isolate them, lockdown circumstances have instead helped diminish anxieties about the digital world and introduced new ways to connect, with help from project worker Sam Keogh-Collins.
Sam says: “Research tells us that a person with a disability is nearly five times as likely as their non-disabled peers to be lonely.
“We work with the people behind these statistics. We all need connection, community and friendship in the same way.
“When lockdown began, we were determined to keep our people as far from further social isolation as possible.
“We’re strengthening people and activating communities to continue their previous endeavours and connections but in new and innovative ways. The fact they’re unable to meet face-to-face for now has actually opened doors in other directions – the digital world doesn’t care about geographical borders.”
The ‘previous endeavours’ Sam mentions are WES’ bread and butter, a project running for the past few years to help people with disabilities have the confidence and skills to speak up and tackle issues they face in their local area.
Even in lockdown, WES has represented ‘hard-to-reach’ groups in consulting with project commissioners Warwickshire County Council and other local services on pandemic health advice, helping make information inclusive and accessible for everyone online and in print. Their ‘Speaking Up’ sessions have also evaluated the digital offering for people with disabilities so the council can adapt services to fit.
Lockdown has undermined the daily routines many people rely on to cope in a changing world and also threatened to further disconnect those with a lack of experience online.
Sam helped mitigate this threat by ‘skilling up’ WES members to join Zoom video calls through one-to-one training, interactive walkthroughs and targeted sessions. Online internet safety sessions also eased fears, highlighted potential risks and equipped people with the knowledge to explore and enjoy the social side of digital together.
From two people, the group now numbers 10 and is growing.
Sam concludes: “Our response to the pandemic has helped this group grow in confidence – so much so they’re also using Zoom to keep in touch with family and friends.
“We’re watching their connections strengthen over the weeks and months. They really enjoy each other’s company in our Speaking Up weekly socials. It feels like a circle of friendship that is thriving now and will remain in the future.”