#volunteersweek : One volunteer tells of 20 years service with ITCanHelp, supporting older and disabled people using tech

David Brew (pictured) is a member of the British Computer Society and coordinates the Northern Ireland branch of AbilityNet's volunteer service ITCanHelp. For 20 years, he has been volunteering to help older people and those with disabilities to get the most out of computers and technology. He tells us how it all started and what being a volunteer means to him.

David BrewHow did you start volunteering for ITCanHelp?

I'm a member of the British Computer Society and in the early 80s, we were involved in training unemployed people in computer skills as part of a government scheme. A man who was paraplegic applied and we had to think about how to do the training differently. It was very rewarding and he went on to set up his own successful business. I've been involved in helping disabled people use computers ever since.

A man called Ken Stoner who had Motor Neurone Disease set up ITCanHelp within the Society and later, the team decided to pass the service over to AbilityNet who now deal with the admin, insurance and expenses of ITCanHelp.

How many disabled and older people with computer issues have you helped?

I've volunteered with perhaps around 40 people myself and now run the service in Northern Ireland sending other volunteers out. But I still work with some clients myself. There are hundreds of ITCanHelp Volunteers, a small portion of those are in Northern Ireland.

Is there anyone you've volunteered for who has stayed in your mind?

Adrian, the man who was paraplegic and set up his own business, I remember with fondness. He went on to help us with the service. There was Ruth, who was blind. She was doing the administration for her husband's business and needed to get all her tech communicating with each other effectively, ie, getting her computer talking to her scanner, and the right screenreader and so on. She lived far into the countryside, so I helped her remotely and got things running smoothly.

Can you tell us about one of your most recent assignments helping a disabled or older person use tech?

Yes, a lady asked me to work with her son who had a learning disability. He was naïve in terms of threats online. He was indiscriminate in what he was downloading, the sites he visited and he was endlessly printing unnecessarily. It was a challenge to make sure I didn't inhibit the value of the web to him, but to protect him from threats and exhausting equipment such as the printer.

What do you enjoy about volunteering for ITCanHelp?

Seeing how thrilled people are with really simple help that changes their world. I worked with a blind physiotherapist who really loved using iPlayer to listen to the radio, it was important to him. But it wasn't working for him. He lived a long way from me, so again I helped remotely. We just needed to change his settings in Google Chrome and he was up and running. He was so, so grateful.

How have you dealt with huge changes in tech since you started volunteering?

Things have changed very much. I am a former computer programmer and behind all the gadgets, a lot of the principles are the same. Apps have always been there - formerly called computer programmes. Now they're just in a slightly different form and actually have less functionality.

What's the future for the service?

We have willing volunteers but it's sometimes hard to let the public know about what we offer. I will be trying to get to more events so we can eventually help more and more people. In Scotland and Wales there is a need for more volunteers for the service. 

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