Barriers to Government Services

Public access computers in study carrelsFor most people who are comfortable using a computer, the shift to accessing government services online can actually be a convenience. You can update your resume on USAjobs or change your address on your driver’s license at 10 pm in your pajamas. But for those who have no computer and no experience using computers, that change can create a barrier to obtaining services to which they are entitled. Forget doing business in the comfort of your home at any hour, they have to use a public computer somewhere, usually in a library, and so are forced to conduct their business during hours that computer is available. Odds are, there are plenty of other people also trying to use that computer. So they may be limited in how long they can use it.

As I have helped patrons navigate job searches over the past several months, I’ve become much more aware of how small things that most experienced computer users handle instinctively are actually major hurdles for the computer illiterate. In the last week, I’ve spent several hours helping a gentleman who was recently laid off from his job. The workforce center gave him directions for accessing their website and sent him to the library to use our computers. He has spent the last 14 years driving a delivery truck for a moving and storage company and supervising the delivery crew assigned to his truck. His experience with computers was completely nonexistent.

Imagine for a moment that you had never interacted with a keyboard. That you had no idea how an Internet browser worked or how to access a website. Now, you can’t collect your unemployment benefits unless you go online to the website and register. While there you have to create a resume. One of the first steps to registering is to input your email address. You have no email and have no idea how that works. You can barely use a keyboard and have no clue how a mouse works. If you’re lucky, someone is available to help you. If you’re not lucky, do you give up now?

The man I was helping honestly wanted to learn. He was pleased each time he remembered something and was able to do it himself. But the learning curve is steep. I decided the site’s resume builder was “the form that never ends.” (Those with children of a certain age may remember the puppet Lambchop singing “The Song That Never Ends.” It goes on and on my friend. . . .) The template wanted exact dates for employment for each job. Do you remember what day you started a job 14 years ago? Or the job before that, the one you started 22 years ago? But it would not accept just month and year. Then there were the drop down menus. They are a nightmare for someone who is not comfortable using a mouse. It’s hard enough to click on a link or to insert a cursor in a data field. But try to select a year in a drop down list for a calendar without having the cursor slip to the year above or below. Experienced users occasionally fumble that. Someone with no skill using a mouse is guaranteed to find it endlessly frustrating.

I could go on and on. Actually, I guess I already have. But I wonder how many people do not receive the services they should because they can’t cope with the online process. As for this gentleman, he completed the online form using their resume template and is OK for now. But he has to come in and update it regularly to show he is actively searching for a job. I also expect that jobs to which he applies will require a separate resume. So I will probably see him back again for help creating a resume in Word. And I’ll help him figure out how to do it. So he’ll learn a new computer skill. But is it a skill he will ever use in a job? I rather doubt it, given the his employment history. But forcing him to cope with the online process is saving someone somewhere time and effort – someone who probably is already proficient in using computers and the Internet.

Am I frustrated? You have to ask?


About booksnquilts

I'm the Children's Services Coordinator for the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library in Central Virginia.
This entry was posted in Information Literacy, Libraries, The Internet and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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