Research paper: Low digital skills households and the path to digital inclusion

Two older men sitting at desk being shown how to use a laptop by a younger woman behind themAbilityNet works directly with people that have challenges getting online.

Evidence shows that for most digitally excluded people – those who never or rarely go online - a combination of low confidence, low skills and low motivation play a big role, and this is true for those with and without affordability issues.

BT Group is a charity partner of AbilityNet, supporting our work to provide high quality support where it’s needed to enable someone to become digitally included and do what’s important to them online. The team at BT Group asked us to capture our knowledge and insight for policy makers and campaigners. 

Digital exclusion research paper

Below, this research 'paper' explores the reality of digital exclusion for individuals experiencing it, and outlines what, with the right support, their journey from digitally excluded to digitally included can look like. 

You can also learn about some of the main reasons members of our core audience are offline and the steps we take to help people become digitally included.

You will find a breakdown of top-line costs to give an indication of what is involved in creating a digitally active online population.

AbilityNet's experience with the challenge

Our digitally excluded users can sometimes come from a place of no digital experience and therefore need help to get started online and to overcome the barriers that have prevented them to date. However, a proportion have some basic skills and require a lighter touch approach, perhaps to build confidence through helping with particular skills or subjects such as media literacy or scam awareness training

Typically, the reasons people need support are due to skill level, lack of confidence, low motivation, health challenges and barriers to accessing tech, a lack of support networks, affordability barriers to getting a device and connectivity.

The type of support needed varies from person to person and can range from virtual support or group sessions to multiple one on one sessions. Some of the people we support are connected in some aspects of their lives, but are struggling in other aspects and need help to make other digital services work better for them.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ model. 

Commonalities for low digital skills

While being digitally excluded isn’t just restricted to one subset of the nation, we do know that the people most likely to be offline are older, with 90% of those not online being over the age of 551.

In the over 75 age group, 26% of all households do not have internet access at home2, with a larger proportion not having broadband. Lack of motivation is a big driver in this group with people feeling that there is no point, don’t see the value or feel they don’t have the skills to bother. However, according to Age UKresearch, of those older people, a third are interested in getting online, but face barriers. 

Another key audience that is offline are disabled people of working age. Although most working age people are online, if you are disabled, you are much more likely to be one of the small proportion that are not. According to Lloyds research4; those with an impairment are two and a half times more likely to lack foundation level digital skills. 

Our users reflect this: So far this year 90% of those calling AbilityNet’s free helpline were over 55 years old, and 81% identified as having a disability or impairment.

How do we approach working with digitally excluded people?

In our experience, people often have specific goals they want to reach when starting out online, such as making doctor’s appointments, entertainment, applying for jobs or staying connected with family.

These goals drive their motivation, and a goal-focused approach definitely helps them take on information more easily, as they can see the benefit. Abstract terms such as ‘digital skills’ can seem more daunting. People, older people in particular, can often feel they are being forced online since ‘in person’ support is diminishing and harder to find. 

AbilityNet offers a range of options to support people, but often the people we work with prefer, and need, a one-to-one session to reduce embarrassment, particularly if they are starting from a place of zero knowledge.

Providing individual support also enables the session to be tailored to their skill level and aims. Each case is run similarly to a triage where an initial call will inform what kind of support an individual needs and a plan is made from there. The sessions are then tailored to individuals and undertaken in a place they feel comfortable, in a format of small ‘bite-size’ chunks with easy-to-understand language and terms. These are generally run by our UK-wide team of Tech Volunteers.

The clear takeaway we have from our support programmes is that, although motivation is a key barrier to begin with, once the digitally excluded come on the journey they generally see a real value and benefit that being online has on their lives. They’re all at different stages, but confidence grows with being connected.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to getting people online, but the key is to give them the skills, confidence, motivation and opportunity to get them one step closer to becoming digitally included.

What are the costs associated with supporting those in need?

Despite the use of Tech Volunteers there are set associated costs such as admin and travel. Costs of supporting an individual can vary from around £60 per person if the level of support needed is a singular group workshop, through to in excess of £800 for multiple one-on-one support sessions for someone that has never been online or used a digital device.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model for people who have not used a digital device, but we do know the benefit to the individuals their families and the economy of helping people to be confident online far outweighs the upfront costs.

Become a Tech Volunteer

Case studies

AbilityNet works with real people to make an impact on real lives. We have developed the following personas based on our experience of supporting older people and disabled people in the digital world to help illustrate the journey they may go through to become more confident online.

Persona 1 – Kathleen, an older person

Older woman looking at a computer with younger woman sitting next to herName: Kathleen, 75 - Retired widowed

Disability information: Reduced vision, hearing and mobility.

Tech knowledge: Low. Recognises she needs to be online to book Dr’s appointments and shop.

Quote: “I’d rather not be online, I’m fine as I am, but I can’t do so many things now without it. I’m worried I’m going to break it, or someone will scam me. It’s all just so complicated.”

Type of support: Helpline and at home Tech Volunteer visits weekly for minimum 6 weeks. 

Progress: Can now use basic navigation on the tablet, email, order small weekly shop, WhatsApp and can surf the internet for news and videos. Is aware of how to check for safe internet sites and emails and her devices have been made accessible for her needs.

Tech confidence now: Medium. Still worries about doing something wrong or falling for a scam. Working towards being more confident and will need on-going support at a less intense rate. 


  • Kathleen, 75 – Retired, widowed
  • Daughter searched internet, found AbilityNet and called in = 1x helpline call
  • Kathleen called back = 1x helpline call (set up)
  • Series of 8 volunteer home visit sessions weekly (assume 40 mile round trip)
  • Following 6 sessions monthly for 6 months with ad-hoc enquiries after that.

Persona 2: Darren, a person with dyslexia

Man with beard and bald head smiling outside by a doorName: Darren, 38 – Part time factory worker, living with partner.

Disability information: Darren is dyslexic. He’s good at problem solving, but is unable to read much more than basic words.  

Tech knowledge: Basic tech knowledge. Keen gamer. Has a very old mobile phone. Would like to use tech to progress his career.

Quote: “I want to get a new smartphone, something I can use so I don’t have to ask people to read for me. I’m a grown man and feel really embarrassed that I can’t read. I’m not stupid.” 

Type of support: Specialist disability advice over the phone, plus volunteer support of 5 hours per visit over 3 weeks.

Tech skills now: Darren is now able to search for jobs and use “Select to Speak” to have the text read out to him so he can understand it more effectively. He’s also making use of Apple Notes, calendars and alarms to keep him more organised. Darren also attends a fortnightly dyslexia support group.

Tech confidence: Good.

What’s next?: Darren has now has an interview for a driving job.


  • Referred by Jobcentre
  • Darren called the 0800 number - Helpline call x1 (set up)
  • Disability consultancy sessions x2
  • 2 volunteer sessions over 3 weeks with ad-hoc enquiries after that

Persona 3: Maxwell, older person who attended a group session

OLder man sitting at a table looking at techName: Maxwell, 76 – Retired bus driver

Disability information: Maxwell is an Afro-Caribbean man who struggles with his mobility and memory. 

Tech knowledge: No technology knowledge whatsoever. Not interested in learning about technology but was gifted a tablet.

Quote: "I have no wish to use technology. I’m too old to start learning new things.  Technology is very scary to me. I like to speak to people and sing in the gospel choir, not stare at a screen.”

Type of support: As part of AbilityNet’s partnership with Extracare, Maxwell received a free laptop and support from a volunteer. AbilityNet also ran a series of group training sessions at the residential village focused on media literacy. Maxwell attended them all.
He soon used his laptop to watch YouTube videos of gospel choirs and made a video call to relatives abroad. He continued to attend the weekly drop-in sessions provided by a local AbilityNet volunteer. 

Tech confidence: Improving all the time.

What’s next?: Maxwell admits becoming digitally connected has made a positive difference in his life. He’s now an advocate in his retirement village for being online, and its resident IT expert.


  • Helpline set up
  • 2 x volunteer visits to set up laptop
  • 3 x group sessions (funded project)
  • 5 x drop-in sessions (volunteer led)

Persona 4 - Geoffrey, an older person with good tech knowledge but also macular degeneration

Older man sitting in dark room holding an umbrellaName: Geoffrey, 91- retired

Disability information: Has macular degeneration. Can still see the screen but not as well as he used to.

Tech knowledge: Good working knowledge of computers. Is quite confident with email and other software as he has worked with computers during his career.

Quote: “I used to find using a device so easy. Now as I’ve got macular degeneration I feel so frustrated because I can’t see the screen so well.”

Type of support: Helpline support and home Tech Volunteer visits weekly for 2 hours over 3 weeks so far. 

Progress: Volunteers set the computer up so that Geoffrey can switch magnification on and looked at making sure that a screen reader and AI apps can be used. 

Tech confidence now: Very good.

What’s next?: Geoffrey is now wondering if there’s anything that he could do to help older people in his area use technology. Geoffrey quite openly says that since receiving the digital support his mental health is now so much better.


  • Helpline calls x1 (set up)
  • Disability consultancy sessions x1
  • 3 volunteer sessions weekly (local volunteer walked)
  • Ad-hoc enquiries after that

Persona 5 - Jane, a person with a learning disability

Younger woman with headphones on and small dog by her sideName: Jane, 37 – Living in a group care home, has help from her support worker Tina.

Disability information: Has a range of learning disabilities. 

Tech knowledge: Low. Used a computer infrequently at school. She wants to be online but struggles with literacy issues. Jane was given a tablet last year as part of the ConnectingU project.

Quote: “Everyone else uses a phone, I feel left out. I want to be able to spend my days looking at fun videos on the internet. I like videos with cute puppies in them. I also like Michael Bublé, so I want to find videos with him in them. I want to stay in touch with people.”

Type of support: Helpline support to understand capability and needs and at home Tech Volunteer visits weekly for 3 hours over 4 weeks. 

Progress: AbilityNet set up Google Action Blocks on Jane’s tablet. They’ve also shown her how to look up videos online, videocall family, set up an email and parental controls to keep her safe.

Tech confidence now: Still basic but is far more engaged with technology and has been asking now for other content. She would like to play online games.

What’s next?: Support worker Tina now feels more confident to support Jane with her tablet and will call on AbilityNet when she comes across something she isn’t sure about.


  • Helpline calls x1 (set up)
  • Disability consultancy sessions x1 (video call)
  • 4 volunteer sessions weekly (40 mile travel)
  • Ad-hoc enquiries after that



1. Centre for Aging Better research ‘…this cohort… are likely to be poorer, less well educated and in worse health than their peers’
2. Digital exclusion: a review of Ofcom’s research on digital exclusion among adults in the UK March 2022
3. Age UK
4. Lloyds Bank

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