Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

Peer Perspectives

Digital Literacy for Vocational Rehabilitation — Meeting Modern Technological Employment Demands

By Nicky Tettamanti

“He installed Dragon NaturallySpeaking, and then left me with the manual. I convinced my vocational rehabilitation counsellor to let me find someone who could teach me,” he told me over the phone on a cold day in Eugene, OR, in January 2015.

This phone call led to meetings with vocational rehabilitation counsellors, a stream of referrals for more clients, and hours of one-on-one digital literacy training over the next two years. I provided one-on-one vocational skills training to improve digital literacy, and assistive technology skills among vocational rehabilitations consumers. Participants met weekly for one to two hours of hands-on instruction and tutoring with assignments given between sessions. Digital literacy is a key target for vocational rehabilitation counselors to meet modern demands of employment.

What Is Digital Literacy?
How can vocational rehabilitation counsellors meet the digital literacy needs of their clients? The ubiquitous use of technology across occupational domains warrants discussing digital literacy as a critical 21st-century vocational skill (Izzo, Yurick, Nagaraja, & Novak, 2010) and an essential life skill (Hobbs, 2010). Vocationally, digital literacy refers to the set of skills and knowledge needed to find, evaluate, create, and organize information using technology (Texas Workforce Commission, 2017). To be digitally literate, an individual cultivates a set of skills such as using input devices, managing files, browsing the internet, communicating via e-mail, understanding operating system functions, utilizing office software, social media engagement, and critically evaluating information (Northstar Digital Literacy, 2019). These standards minimally meet the digital demands required to search and apply for jobs in addition to meeting the needs of many occupations. The digital literacy framework describes the knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions of information evaluation and synthesis using digital systems (Bawden, 2008). More critically, digital literacy is not merely about using keyboards or copying a file; instead, digital literacy intersects and extends other literacies such as media, library, and information literacy (Bawden, 2001).

The adoption of digital technologies by nearly every industry across the United States foretells the increasing importance of digital literacy (Muro, Liu, Whiton, & Kulkarni, 2017). The embedding of digital systems across sectors and throughout occupations (a concept called digitalization) has rapidly accelerated over the past decade. Now employers require applicants and employees to utilize technology not only in high-tech positions but even in traditionally low-tech jobs. For example, occupations that previously required high digital demands (programmers, financial managers), medium digital demands (automotive technicians, registered nurse), and low digital demands (home health aide, welders, truck drivers) all now require higher levels of engagement with digital content and technology (Muro, Liu, Whiton, & Kulkarni, 2017). Beyond most occupations across the United States requiring more interaction with digital content, digitalization has created new professions such as mobile app developers and social media managers. Vocational rehabilitation clients may already rank lower in job queues due to ableism. If a client also lacks digital skills, then the person will also be at risk of reduced employment and income.

Modern Digitalization Demands
The increased digitization of occupation is associated with increased pay for employees (Muro, Liu, Whiton, & Kulkarni, 2017). If marginalized populations do not meet the digital demands of employment, then they are at risk for further economic marginalization. The new requirements for digital skills will likely increase income disparity unless organizations (such as vocational rehabilitation) prioritize expanding basic digital literacy among marginalized groups, in this case people with disabilities (Muro, Liu, Whiton, & Kulkarni, 2017). In sum, the increasing digital demands and increased wages for employees providing digital skills lend credence to improving digital literacy programming in vocational rehabilitation programs.

Another component of digital literacy, digital career literacy, focuses on the importance of navigating one’s career using digital technology. The internet has shifted the way people apply for jobs and manage their careers in four key ways (Hooley, 2012; Hooley, 2017). First, the internet acts as a career resource library that informs jobseekers about career pathways, education, and outcomes. Second, people can engage with learning providers and employers to gain access to opportunities (including finding and applying to jobs). Third, people can join social networks for conversation and identifying contacts to improve their social capital. Fourth, the internet acts as a democratic tool which can raise their profile and reputation of any individual’s voice. The ability of an individual to take advantage of the internet for their career development requires digital literacy knowledge and skills. Digital career literacy, as a distinct component of digital literacy, must also be explored by vocational rehabilitation counsellors.

Digital Literacy Interventions
A few digital literacy interventions are found in the literature. One program provides vocational rehabilitation professionals webinars on coaching digital career literacy to vocational rehabilitation consumers (Goe, Ipsen, & Bliss, 2018). In this example, one-on-one tutoring focused on providing services directly to vocational rehabilitation consumers. Another paper focuses on how an information technology (IT) company trained people with disabilities in IT skills and assisted in job placement (Phillips et al., 2016). My program differed because it teaches individuals in baseline digital literacy skills instead of specialized IT skills. In another example, the online peer support community DigiPlace4All provides a space for people with disabilities, educators, and employers active in European countries to support and share information (Magennis et al., 2015). Our program differed because it occurs in person and in real time, while also giving a vocational rehabilitation consumer access to a subject trainer instead of a peer.

Limitations and Obstacles
Two limitations were found while running digital literacy training services: assessments and lack of resources. First, since vocational rehabilitation counsellors wanted independent assessment and certification, future programs need to provide accreditation; two common certifications are Certiport and Northstar. It may increase the logistical and financial cost of running these programs if a testing center is not nearby; however, programs can team up a with local library system or community college, utilizing current resources to create a Northstar Digital Literacy center. Second, many of the vocational rehabilitation consumers do not have laptops. Since many vocational rehabilitation consumers worked at libraries, DHS offices, or Goodwill Computer Centers, they sometimes found difficulty in accessing a computer to complete weekly assignments. As such, access to technology is an issue that may affect a vocational rehabilitation consumer’s success.

Digital literacy programs—whether in-house varieties or rendered via contractors—are a feasible way to improve digital literacy among vocational rehabilitation consumers. While more research needs to be done to explore the efficacy of these types of programs, the vocational rehabilitation client requires digital literacy skills in order to manage a career, procure employment, and meet the digitalization demands of their occupation. Digital literacy is an essential factor not only in work but also in modern life. Rapid digitalization throughout the United States and across different industries illustrates the importance of digital literacy. If vocational rehabilitation aims to provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities, then the time is now to address issues associated with digital literacy.

— Nicky Tettamanti is a MPH student at Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.


Bawden, D. (2001). Information and digital literacies: A review of concepts. Journal of Documentation, 57(2), 218-259.

Bawden, D. (2008). Origins and concepts of digital literacy. In C. Lankshear & M. Knobel, (Eds.), Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices. 1st edition. (pp. 17-32). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Goe, R., Ipsen, C., & Bliss, S. (2018). Pilot testing a digital career literacy training for vocational rehabilitation professionals. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 61(4), 236-243.

Hobbs, R. (2010). Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action. Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute.

Hooley, T. (2012). How the internet changed career: framing the relationship between career development and online technologies. Journal of the National Institute for Career Education and Counselling, 29, 3-12.

Hooley, T. (2017). Developing your career: harnessing the power of the internet for “digital career management.” Development and Learning in Organizations, 31(1), 9-11.

Izzo, M. V., Yurick, A., Nagaraja, H. N., & Novak, J. A. (2010). Effects of a 21st-century curriculum on students’ information technology and transition skills. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 33(2), 95-105.

Magennis, M., Murphy, E., Lazarov, A., Van Isacker, K., Dumnicka, K., Polak, M., et al. (2015). DigiPlace4all: An online peer support community for digital skills. Studies in Health Technology and Informatics. 217, 235-240.

Muro, M., Liu, S., Whiton, J., & Kulkarni, S. (2017). Digitalization and the American Workforce. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/mpp_2017nov15_digitalization_full_report.pdf.

Northstar Digital Literacy. (2019). About the assessments. Retrieved from https://www.digitalliteracyassessment.org/assessment-info.

Phillips, B. N., Morrison, B., Deiches, J. F., Yan, M., Strauser, D., Chan, F., et al. (2016). Employer-driven disability services provided by a medium-sized information technology company: A qualitative case study. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 45(1), 85-96.

Texas Workforce Commission. (2017). AEL definitions. Retrieved from https://tcall.tamu.edu/AELDefinitions.html.