Stephan Liebrecht 20 January 2021

Improving digital services for citizens with learning disabilities

Improving digital services for citizens with learning disabilities image

At the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, I’m leading on the implementation of an app-based tool designed to increase the independence of some of the borough’s 472 adults with learning disabilities. The app, created by our digital social care partners AutonoMe, gives users and care supports access to personalised, instructional videos on how to do things to improve their independence and prepare for employment. Content can be added and amended to meet the developing needs of individuals.

Following the successful bid for match funding in and an extensive design phase, we had our first users on board in December. I’ve reflected on three main areas during project design and implementation, reviewing the decisions we’ve made.

Did we make the right considerations?

We realised we were looking at a wide range of potential users. On one hand, we want to support people with low needs with a higher degree of independence. On the other hand, we felt we needed to include people with moderate needs too. My message here is go in with an open mind, considering how funded projects like this could benefit a wider group.

We considered what we saw as ‘true value’ in terms of outcomes. This meant we wanted a tool that was adaptable to meet the requirements of a variety of users. A key consideration for us is increased employability, not employment. We find it’s often not the lack of manual skills that stops people with learning disabilities securing and keeping a job. It’s equally important people have the right life skills to be successful in employment. This focus enables a much wider approach, that is flexible enough to include the range of people we want to support.

We also want app users to see the value in ‘learning to learn’- once learners can use the platform, they can access a broader range of content, gaining further benefits such as confidence and motivation. Therefore, funding the project to work with a specific app would have wider, more sustained benefits, giving it more measurable value.

During the funding application process, and into the development of the service, I would also recommend regularly considering what the legacy of the project be. Peers in local government and social care will understand the frustration of the many initiatives that launch and disappear. We believe that this app could become part of our standard offer and be an alternative or addition to other services as part of a support plan. Ultimately, users will determine its success as they get to choose if they want to add it to their package.

Did we bring the right services and the right tech together?

On reflection, our focus on adaptable tech propelled the project forward considerably. Our clients face multiple living and employment challenges and their support reflects this, so we had to keep this at the kernel of service design. We ensured the app and support around it was limitless in terms of content and outcomes supported, meaning it can remain relevant and personalised regardless of how users’ lives change.

Apps are everywhere in our modern society, making them attractive for our residents and they are getting the opportunity to learn how to use them.

Did we focus on the right outcomes?

Widening the focus from the beginning of the project has proved successful. Communicating our vision to frontline workers has taken time but scepticism at the beginning soon turned to a positivity. We’re dealing with individuals and care scenarios where it’s difficult to define selection criteria that are not too inclusive or exclusive. Once we stopped trying to identify and refer people to the project who were a ‘perfect fit’, and recognised the benefits to differently structured care plans, we found a successful pathway and selection became a positive process.

We’ve also become enthusiastic about some additional outcomes of the project such as the data from our screening process. Learning why a candidate didn't pass the screening process is useful, such as being made aware someone meets all the criteria but does not have WiFi, which is something we can look to change for them.

Reflecting on our outcome focus, yes, we want to see progress towards independence, but we’re also interested in softer metrics. For example, are people connecting with the application? If they are, they will learn new skills, as even using the app is helping them use a smartphone or tablet more successfully.

Stephan Liebrecht is the operational director of adult support at London Borough of Barking and Dagenham

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