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Reaching out, remotely: Lessons in accessible remote engagement

31 May 2021
Author: Galen MacLusky
In Prosper Canada’s work in developing and piloting supports for people living on low incomes, we rely heavily on the guidance of people with lived experience. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of this engagement would take place in-person. The COVID-19 pandemic upended this approach and forced us to get creative about how we engage people living on low-incomes. We want to share two important lessons that we’ve learned over the past year. 
1.  Offer a variety of equally meaningful ways to participate 
Through our work in access to benefits for people living with disabilities we’ve come to particularly appreciate the diversity of abilities and preferences in how people prefer to engage, and that those preferences shouldn’t be a barrier to participation. While some do prefer a telephone conversation, we’ve also had lots of people who preferred to do written reflections because they can do them when their energy, environment, and health are optimal. A wonderful surprise for us was just how detailed some of these reflections can be - much more than we could ever get in a single hour-long interview.  
We also offered the option of arts-based research methods, like writing poetry or creating visual art. Those methods have been much less used by our participants, but they are still important to include as an option. They’re a big part of us making sure that there is no ‘hierarchy’ of options. Sometimes, it can be apparent that one option is a simplified (and less valuable) version of another. Creating a hierarchy of options is another way to marginalize people, especially if the ‘less valuable’ option is the one that best matches their abilities.  
2.  Use physical networks and media 
The pandemic has also highlighted the barriers for people who don’t have internet and digital technology access, and this is something we’ve wrestled with while we can only engage remotely. One critical part of removing barriers has been working with local community partners to get the word out. Shelters, Food Banks, Health Centres, Transit Providers and Home Service Providers are all critical touchpoints for some of our most vulnerable neighbours, and they have been incredibly helpful in spreading the word. We have also avoided using solely digital technology to communicate. In our Prosperity Gateways work, we’ve been using physical mail and prepaid envelopes to distribute prototypes and get feedback. While this is a bit slower than email, for some it’s the only way that they would be able to participate.  

Of course, we’re still a long way off from making it so that every person can participate. However, the constraints of the pandemic have helped us reimagine how we might engage, and we’ve seen clear value in our work from making the extra effort towards accessible engagement. Even when we return to in-person engagements, these remote forms will be absolutely needed to make sure that those who can’t make it in-person can still have an equal voice.  


Galen MacLusky is a Manager of Program Delivery and Integration at Prosper Canada.

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