“It seems to me we have got into a habit of using ageing as a proxy term for combinatorial disability, its inaccurate and we should stop it.”
So a few weeks ago I listened to this book, ‘The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting’, being read as ‘Book of the Week‘ on BBC Radio 4. In brief,
A psychotherapist, de Hennezel came to her subject – ageing- largely through her own resentment at feeling washed up at 60.. She praises the centenarians of Okinawa (from where she takes the title) for their apparent vitality, but feels the western world ignores, belittles and forgets its old, to everyone’s detriment. —Psychologies
This got me to thinking, as I suppose it should do, about ageing and our take on it as accessibility research scientists. I got to wondering in trying to make things more accessible do we ‘belittle’ the people for whom we are trying to create solutions? Indeed, in the teaching book I’m in the process of writing I suggest that ageing is/can be – actually in honesty the implication firmly ‘IS‘ – a barrier to access:
Population demographics indicate that our populations are ageing across the board. Indeed, the world’s older population is expected to exceed one billion by 2020. Evidence suggests that approximately 50% of the older population suffer from impairments, such as hearing loss, with one in five people over the age of 65 being disabled. As the population ages the financial requirement to work more years is increased, but age-related disability becomes a bar to employment. At present, only 15% of the 65+ age-group use computers, but as the population ages this number will significantly increase. An ageing, but computer literate, population indicates a large market for computer based services especially when mobility is a problem for the user. In many developed countries, the growth of the knowledge economy and a move away from manual work should improve the prospects of older Web users being able to find employment, providing technology, and specifically computational resources, is accessible to them. The aspects of impairment that define ageing are those of a combinatorial nature. In effect, ageing users have problems found in one or more of the groups listed in this section, but often, these impairments are less sever but more widespread.
Yes there is no denying it, the last sentence ‘ageing users have problems found in one or more of the groups [of disabilities]‘ is damning, I don’t even say ‘may have’, I imply ageing is a barrier and combinatorial disabilities are its cause. But I’m a right to make such sweeping generalisations, swept along by a prevailing negative western / research – jeunisme, youngism – mindset? Well my mind drifted back to ASSETS 2008 (in glorious Halifax, NS) to a paper by Peter G. Fairweather from IBM T.J. Watson called ‘How older and younger adults differ in their approach to problem solving on a complex website’ .
Peter challenges the view that ‘Older adults differ from younger ones in the ways they experience the World Wide Web. For example, they tend to move from page to page more slowly, take more time to complete tasks, make more repeated visits to pages, and take more time to select link targets than their younger counterparts. These differences are consistent with the physical and cognitive declines associated with aging (sic). The picture that emerges has older adults doing the same sorts of things with websites as younger adults, although less efficiently, less accurately and more slowly.’ He presents new findings that show that ‘to accomplish their purposes, older adults may systematically undertake different activities and use different parts of websites than younger adults. We examined how a group of adults 18 to 73 years of age moved through a complex website seeking to solve a specific problem. We found that the users exhibited strong age-related tendencies to follow particular paths and visit particular zones while in pursuit of a common goal. We also assessed how experience with the web may mediate these tendencies.’ The interesting part is that Peter finds that younger and older people do things differently with older users taking a less risky route, but also that experience, not age, is the defining factor of regarding how to solve the assigned problem using the web. Younger inexperienced users make more mistakes than older experienced users and take longer.
So what does this say about our conception of older users having problems found in other disability groups – ageing as disability, ageing as impairment? I’m beginning to think that ageing in general isn’t a barrier to access although combinatorial disability – at whatever age it occurs – may well be. In all cases a lack of experience and knowledge are much more significant barriers to access, so education is key. It seems to me we have got into a habit of using ageing as a proxy term for combinatorial disability, its inaccurate and we should stop it.
- Peter G. Fairweather (2008). How older and younger adults differ in their approach to problem solving on a complex website Proceedings of the 10th international ACM SIGACCESS conference on Computers and accessibility, 67-72 : http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/1414471.1414485
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