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Aging and accessibility

Filed in: accessibility, design, Web, Mon, Mar 31 2008 17:07 PT

You know what I think should cause everyone to give at least some thought to accessibility?

Your thirties.

I remember one day, when I was 30. I threw the sheets off the bed, and shot my legs out to launch myself from the bed. I took two steps forward, saw a blinding light… and found myself lying on the floor, unable to move for several minutes. It was my first back spasm, and knocked me out of commission for a couple weeks.

Suddenly, things I took for granted, like getting up and looking in the fridge, were things I had to consider. I didn’t want to go anywhere, because it hurt to breathe, much less move. But in that time, I had to fly cross-country to tend to my grandmother in her final days, and that meant managing my pain while my back was screaming in an airplane seat, and then being wrenched as I carried all my luggage. It was the first time that my mobility was reduced, the first time I preferred elevators to taking the stairs two at a time, and the first time I had to depend on other people to help me do what I considered to be basic tasks.

It seems that since then, every six months I get a reminder that my body is not necessarily my friend. Most recently, I strained a ligament in my foot while exercising. Let me tell you, foot injuries suck. When your foot hurts, you keep hoping it doesn’t get worse. And when it doesn’t, you’re scared to do anything that might aggravate it again. So I had a very strange weekend that involved walking with a cane to keep weight off my foot.

It’s simple to look at people with a visible disability and say, I’m glad that’s not me. But you know what? Sooner or later, it will be.

Your vision will likely be the first thing to go. You may strain to read small type, at first. Then, maybe you’ll try bifocals. After that, as the effects of presbyopia set in, you’ll come to rely on your glasses to read. Your vision may start to yellow a bit, as well.

But wait! There’s more!

Hearing loss is a common side effect of the aging process. You may also encounter problems with arthritis (by the way: you’re not resting your wrists on the wrist rest while you’re typing, are you? Are you?), or any of a host of other fine or gross motor dysfunctions that will advance over time. And you may find that your cognitive abilities aren’t as sharp as they once were. (Hopefully before those around you start talking about it.)

I started doing web development when I was 20. At the time, it was barely conceivable to us that people of a certain age would be using the web. We didn’t even know if the web itself was going to last. But here it is, still chugging after a dozen and a half years, and not looking a day over 10.

And nowadays, I look around at the people I’ve worked with, and some of them are really old. Like, in their fifties! Some have even retired — the kind of retired where they’re collecting Social Security and posting pictures of their grandkids to Flickr. Get it? They’re using Flickr. And YouTube. And Gmail, and Twitter, and especially eBay. They also tend to have money to spend, and companies tend to like people like that.

And yet, I still hear people dismissing accessibility for older people on the web. That’s not going to fly any longer. Younger people are coming up on the web, that’s true. But those of us already there are only getting older, and we’re not going to stop liking the web anytime soon.

Keep this in mind when you’re about to downplay whether older users will want to use your site. The right thing to ask is:

Will you want to use this site when you’re older?

Or maybe, do you want some 20-year-old smartass deciding you won’t?

5 responses to “Aging and accessibility”

  1. ethanz says:

    solid thinking, Matt. this is an important drum to beat, and a compelling way to beat it.

  2. xtfer says:

    I had to up-size the text to read this, as I usually do, at 31. Case-in-point! As screen resolutions get higher, your pages get smaller, so if you haven’t designed for resizing you have a problem straight away.

    Good article!

  3. Adrian says:

    Good article, I have been saying similar things for a while too. We are all getting older and accessibility benefits us all now and in the future. Also, accessibility increases usability.

  4. NCJ says:

    Good Article. In my 50’s and a webdesigner developer. Accessibility is crucial.

    Started using a computer in my 30’s, print design, began web design in my 40’s. It is our generation, give or take 10 years, who are aging and seeing the affects of our aging using computers.

  5. Interesting points – I’m sadly turning the corner myself and as much as I’d like to not think about this, it’s all very true.

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