Pandemic digital divide worries literacy groups

By Ruby Irene Pratka – Local Journalism Initiative

Over the past year, millions of Quebecers have booked vaccine appointments on the provincial government’s ClicSanté portal, gotten their shots, downloaded their proof of vaccination, stored one copy in the VaxiCode app and printed off another for emergencies.

For a person with ready access to a computer, smartphone and printer and the skills and comfort level to navigate between a few different online applications, booking an appointment or uploading a proof of vaccination takes a few minutes. However, for the thousands of Quebecers who lack digital literacy skills or struggle with reading and processing written information, it’s not that simple.

According to the Fondation pour l’alphabétisation, nearly one in five Quebecers has “significant or very significant difficulties” understanding and acting on written information. A report released in 2021 by the same foundation shows that between 55 and 58 per cent of the adult population of Brome-Missisquoi, across both language groups, does not have “the necessary level of literacy to understand longer or more complex texts” – a proportion just above the provincial average (53 per cent). A 2016 CEFRIO study found that 81 per cent of adult Quebecers said they were “moderately or highly skilled” at using the Internet, but that number dropped to around 50 per cent for people over 65. There was also a strong regional disparity – although 54 per cent of Montrealers and 51 per cent of Quebec City residents said they were “highly skilled,” compared to only one in three people outside of major cities. Literacy advocates say the shift to digital services has left many people behind, especially in rural areas.

“The digital skills needed to navigate daily life have increased year after year. To fill out the census, you need to enter a code online or over the phone. Even using a parking meter requires digital literacy,” says Margo Legault, executive director of Literacy Quebec. “The pandemic has accelerated that shift.”

Legault says Literacy Quebec member organizations have been “extremely creative,” continuing to teach adults to read, write and use computers over the phone or through correspondence.

Wendy Seys is the executive director of the Yamaska Literacy Council (YLC), which supports several hundred English speakers in the MRC of Brome-Missisquoi who struggle with literacy or computer skills. She and her team printed out and mailed more than 200 paper copies of vaccine passports to people who could not print or download their own. The YLC has also had “more than 150 requests” to guide people through the process of booking or changing vaccine appointments, printing documents or downloading the ArriveCan app used at border crossings.

“People are being told, ‘do this online, do that online.’ A lot of us struggle with digital literacy even if we don’t struggle with reading and writing, but if you struggle with [basic] literacy, that keeps you from being able to function online,” says Seys. “We’ve had to make a rapid shift to digital learning that has affected vulnerable adults who don’t have access to [computer] hardware, or don’t have the literacy skills to use it. There are also some people who don’t have a reliable cell signal where they live.” Her own phone connection cuts in and out, as if to prove her point.

The range of people seeking help is diverse, like the range of people who use the literacy and tutoring services at the Cowansville-based nonprofit. “We see young people who have left school, who need a drivers’ licence and can’t read well enough to take their theory test. There are older people who have always wanted to learn to read better and now is the time. We have parents who want to help their kids with homework, and people in or leaving prison who want to improve their job prospects. We have adults with learning disabilities who weren’t able to learn or focus in a classroom setting. It’s very diverse.”

Legault believes that in the context of the pandemic, the Quebec government could do more to provide analog options and plain-language communication for people who struggle to access information online. Seys says adults with limited literacy “haven’t been at the forefront” of the province’s pandemic response. “People have a hard time recognizing that Quebec has an adult literacy problem. Hopefully this whole experience has sensitized us to the need to help adults improve their skills.”

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