Townsville joins digital skills program helping people with disabilities prepare for natural disasters

When floodwaters started lapping on the streets near Tammy Royle’s Townsville home in 2019, she knew she had to leave.

“Because I live alone and am in a wheelchair, I was unsure where I could evacuate and whether I would be able to move around and use the facilities,” Ms Royle said.

“It was pretty scary being alone. Being vulnerable is hard.”

The 43-year-old lives with cerebral palsy and emergency services arranged for her to be safe haven at a local secondary school during the major flood.

Ms Royle said one thing made her feel less isolated during her ordeal.

“Having my cell phone with me and having all the [emergency] contact details were very important,” she said.

Ms. Royle now uses her experience to help other people with disabilities to fully prepare for natural disasters.

A pilot program aims to help people living with disabilities in Townsville stay connected during natural disasters.(ABC North Queensland: Sally Wilson)

Bridging the “digital divide”

The Queenslanders with Disability Network (QDN) is expanding its digital inclusion project to Townsville, the first regional town to take part in the pilot scheme.

“We know Townsville is no stranger to emergencies and disasters,” said Michelle Moss, QDN’s interim chief executive.

“We know about the devastating floods of 2019 in the region and their impacts.

“[Some] people with disabilities rely on others for their most basic support needs… being able to eat and take care of themselves.

“If people can’t access support, it’s a really critical situation. A cellphone, iPad or computer is really a lifeline for people to stay safe.”

Flood waters rush over the Aplins Weir in Townsville
A monsoon dumped record rains on the Townsville area in 2019.(ABC North Queensland: Sally Wilson)

Ms Moss said the scale of the digital divide has come to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic, when accessing everyday services like telehealth or online grocery shopping has become a challenge.

“Regional and rural communities certainly experience additional barriers and lower levels of digital literacy,” she said.

“We want to make sure no one is left behind, especially people with disabilities.”

Skills a “necessity, not a luxury”

The scheme has so far been rolled out in Brisbane, Ipswich and the Gold Coast, providing donated devices to eligible community members.

It teaches participants digital skills, including how to access emergency information, essentials like food and medicine, and how to stay in touch with family and friends.

Ms Royle is among the volunteers who will teach Townsville residents the basics of navigating on their devices – skills she describes as “a necessity, not a luxury”.

“Accessing the internet, getting internet banking, accessing the MyGov website, knowing how to use your phone, how to charge it and take a picture,” she said.

Hand holds phone against brick wall with SES app
Participants will learn how to use their mobile devices to access emergency services.(ABC North Queensland: Rachael Merritt)

“If you don’t have access to the internet and devices you can rely on, it makes life exceptionally difficult, even if you’re able-bodied, but especially if you’re disabled.”

Ms Royle said these skills were vital for people with disabilities leading independent lives.

“Sometimes it can be overwhelming to figure out and navigate it all,” she said.

“It’s useful to feel useful, it’s not a feeling someone in my position feels very often.

“It’s nice to be able to help out in some way… and hopefully with my experience I can make it easier.”

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