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Cyber-navigator Zach McMahon helps patron Charlie Brown navigate a computer. Photo: Front and Center
Cyber-navigator Zach McMahon helps patron Charlie Brown navigate a computer. Photo: Front and Center

Filling out social service forms, without digital literacy

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Throughout Front and Center, our continuing collaboration with WBEZ , we've been exploring issues of literacy and how that affects people in school life and work. Usually when you hear the word "literacy" you think of reading and writing. But a new form of literacy is becoming increasingly important: digital literacy. Front and Center's Shannon Heffernan has this story about one bridge in the digital divide.

Support for Front and Center comes from the Joyce Foundation, improving the quality of life in the Great Lakes region and across the country.

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Charlie Brown is a cheery older man, who carries around a huge bag overflowing with papers. Like many people his age, he relies on social services for housing and health care. But lately, he’s noticed a trend when at social service offices: they are short-staffed and send him online for information or to fill out a form. It’s been a challenge for Brown, who describes himself as “computer illiterate.”

Once a week he goes to Harold Washington Library to meet with Zach McMahon, a cyber navigator. A cyber navigator’s central job is to help people learn to use computers. McMahon is one of 45 grant-funded, part-time employees at some Chicago Libraries and he helps patrons to learn to use the computers. McMahon says that much of what they do is help people access government services or find a job. In a way, the cyber navigators are almost like digital social workers.

The cyber navigators don’t type or fill out forms for people. They want them to learn to do it themselves. So when Brown pushes the keyboard towards McMahon because he’s too frustrated with spelling, McMahon pushes the keyboard back to Brown, encouraging him to try. So Brown pulls out a notebook, full of handwritten words he regularly uses, but can’t spell.

“I use [the cyber navigators] about once a week to find what’s available to senior citizens such as food pantry, clothing or housing assistance,” says Brown. The program is unique to Chicago, but many libraries have noticed an increased number of requests to help access social services online, according the American Library Association. A report from the American Library Association reveals that as social service agencies cut back on staff, they are sending people online.

McMahon says he often gets people who’ve never used the internet, but need to quickly access some social services. Harold Washington library in downtown Chicago is near a Federal Immigration Office, and they send him a lot of referrals. “Last year sometime an Italian gentleman came in with very little English skills and he was looking to fill out his 1-90 form,” said McMahon. That’s a form for people who have lost their Green Card and need to travel. “The immigration office hadn’t sent him over with a note on his shirt saying this is what I need. Unfortunately, we spent the first 15 minutes just trying to figure out  what this gentleman needed to do. So I sat down with him, he had never used a computer before, and when he went to grab the mouse he picked it up and raised it over his head.” Eventually they were able to fill out the form and the man went home for his brother’s funeral.

According the American Library Association, over half of libraries say helping patrons access government information is one of the most critical services they provide. Unfortunately, not everyone gets the help they need. Aaron Smith is with Pew Internet and American Life project. He says one in five Americans doesn’t go online at all, and this includes people who access many government services.

Aaron Smith is with Pew Internet and American Life project. He says one in five Americans doesn’t go online at all. They include people who access many government services. “They tend to be older, they tend to have low levels of income, low levels of education, people with a chronic health condition or some sort of disability, and low language proficiency,” said Smith.

So far, most essential government forms are still available in hard copy. But some are only available by mail order, and are processed much quicker online. As for Mr. Charlie Brown, he says will visit the cyber-navigators next week and said, “Without these services, I’d be on the verge of homelessness. So I’d be sleeping under the bridge with the rest of the guys.”

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