Still Wanted: Accessible Technology for the Elderly and Disabled

A recent survey by the PEW Internet and American Life Project shows that the health industry and its resident technology partners are still missing an opportunity to serve a valuable market, the elderly and the disabled. According to the report, "54% of adults living with a disability use the internet, compared with 81% of adults who report none of the disabilities listed in the survey." The lower numbers are reflected in several key areas. For example, the disabled have lower access to broadband Internet. In fact, the US government is proposing that legislation covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act be extended to include websites. The correlation between aging and disability is implicit in the survey results as well, with 58% of those reporting disabilities citing their age as 50 or older.

Seniors, Accessibility & TechnologyA north American problem - and opportunity
Canada faces a similar problem. The last similar survey by Stats Canada (end of 2007) showed that a substantially smaller proportion of the elderly accessed the Internet for personal reasons as opposed to those aged 35-54 who figured in at just under 80%. The health care industry (both in the US and Canada) should realize it has an interest in creating more accessible technology for elderly and disabled. While the elderly are adapting technology and there are companies working to make it easier all the time, more can be done, obviously. If the numbers of disabled users were equal in ratio to that of the general populace, it would present a significant revenue opportunity. Health care purchases including pharmaceuticals, aid devices and numerous other products, are a 2 trillion dollar a year industry in North America.

Back to Accessibility Basics
An obvious reason for the lack of use of technology is that the elderly and disabled find it inaccessible and nominally useful or usable. There are tried and true ways of improving those issues:

Answer the needs of the elderly and disabled. Using focus groups and interviews opens up technology creators to new ideas. Many of the good ideas in technology are born of anecdotal wishes. The elderly are often unheard from and yet they are the biggest font of wisdom into what new products should be made available to them to help them get what they require.

Testing of products on end users. With a large enough user sample, products can be designed so they are more useful for the disabled and underprivileged. Murray Sanders is a Mississauga technology designer focused on the accessibility of health care technology. He's worked with in-field medical experts during the SARS crisis as well as and numerous other companies in the Canadian health care industry. "We find time and again that Internet and technology providers are blind to gaps in accessibility when bringing products to market. Where there ought to be an intuitive synergy between market needs and technology providers, the needs of the elderly are all too often underserved."

Internet and technology development has always had an undercurrent of idealism to it, including the belief in connection, in opening up access to information and power, and in empowering people through access to information. Health care technology companies have the opportunity to indulge that ideal with the development of products that the disabled find useful and usable. As President Obama's Medicare plan deepens in the rich US market, this should make it more feasible for US and Canadian companies to create helpful technologies that are more affordable as well as (hopefully) more accessible.

Learn more
US readers can learn more about proposed changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act and offer your comments here.

A downloadable version of the PEW Internet and American Life Project study on accessibility is available here.

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