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Opinion piece published in the Sunday Tasmanian 11 Oct 2020

It’s getting harder to find a real person to talk to these days at government agencies like Centrelink, Medicare and My Aged Care.

If you call, you invariably end up on hold, pressing numbers and praying somebody will eventually pick up and end the intolerable waiting music. Or you’re encouraged to “hop online” and serve yourself.

It’s the same story for banks, which are closing suburban branches, insurance companies, utilities and other organisations.

Welcome to the digital world.

It’s great if you know what you’re doing and terrible if you don’t have the technology or know-how.

Many older Australians have embraced the new technologies quickly and successfully. But many have not.

Last year the Tasmanian Council of Social Service (TasCOSS) released a report on the digital divide and found that older people are among the groups most disadvantaged when it comes to participating in the digital world.

Ironically, it’s these groups (which also include the unemployed and people with low education levels) most likely to need the government services they’re increasingly forced to access online. The main barriers to the digital world are access to suitable and reliable technology, affordability and a lack of knowledge and skills.

As the TasCOSS report notes, it’s hard to fill out government forms when you can’t afford the internet at home or are afraid of the technology. This is only amplified if you have poor eyesight or arthritic hands.

Similarly, phone calls don’t work for people hard of hearing.

Many older Australians prefer face-to-face interaction but feel forced online.

In my opinion this is discrimination, and government services should always offer a real person to deal with.

The State Government recently gave away travel vouchers, but in the first round the only way you could get them was online. That’s just not fair. I’ve lost count of the number of elderly people who’ve turned up at my front counter for help because they’ve been told to go online, but don’t have the skills or means to do so.

This frustration was echoed to TasCOSS.

One woman in her 80s said: “It’s very disappointing that so many government agencies are forcing elderly people to use their online services. If it wasn’t for our daughter’s assistance, we would be hopelessly lost regarding it all.” Another woman, in her 70s, said: “I’m afraid to experiment on a computer in case I do something I can’t undo.” On a positive note, there is free help available.

Your local library offers basic computing and technology courses and free access to computers and the internet.

Neighbourhood houses and other community groups can also be a good place to get online and learn how to navigate the online world. But only if you want to.

You should never feel forced online.