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Looking Ahead at Digital Accessibility: Is Your Website Ready for Aging Boomers?

Janet Kornblum October 8, 2018
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As today’s tech-savvy Baby Boomers grow older they will demand that technology keeps pace with their needs.

People 65 and older are already “deeply into the tech world,” says Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center. “Two-thirds are internet users; 85 percent have mobile phones (including nearly half who have smartphones); and 37 percent use social media platforms.”

And of that group of older Americans, Boomers are the savviest, according to Pew. “As Boomers age, they take their gadgets and their connectivity with them into their senior years,” Rainie says.

After all, Boomers are among “the people who invented the computer age,” says Sami Hassanyeh, AARP’s senior vice president of digital strategy and membership.

“They are not going back to pre-digital life,” Rainie says. “They appreciate their screens and there’s no reason to think that affection will fade even as their vision and hearing and dexterity fades.” In fact, Boomers are increasingly likely to exploit technology tools that will help them augment their senses and enrich their lives. “There’s little chance they will give that up,” Rainie says.

That’s the good news. The not-so-great news is that a lot of organizations are unprepared when it comes to digital accessibility.

Tech Designers Forget Older People Exist

Unfortunately, businesses today don’t have websites that will accommodate changes that take place as humans age. “If you work in the tech industry, it’s easy to forget that older people exist,” writes designer Ollie Campbell in Smashing Magazine, a publication for web designers.

Aging can comes with issues like presbyopia (the eye’s decreasing ability to focus on nearby objects), decreased ability to hear and slower reflexes. Meanwhile, younger web designers often design for themselves, choosing smaller fonts and poor color contrast.

Designers “lack awareness about website accessibility guidelines,” according to Laurie Orlov, founder of the blog Aging in Place Technology Watch. Ultimately, Orlov believes that older adults will avoid sites that don’t take into account digital accessibility issues related to aging.

Digital Accessibility Is Smart Business

Accommodating the online needs of hundreds of millions of people makes sense for many of reasons—including the potential financial return.

Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, says older people are “a rapidly growing demographic group who will be a much larger portion of the population both in the United States and around the world in the years to come.” And digital accessibility will be more than a Baby Boomer issue, according to Irving. “It’s an issue for Gen Xers, Millennials, Gen Z—and generations to come.” After all, these generations also will have age-related needs as they grow older.

By 2040, 21 percent of adults in the UnS will be over 65, according to the United States Census Bureau. And by 2060, half the population will be over 65.

Meeting Consumers’ Needs Online

Fortunately, there are myriad resources to help businesses improve their digital accessibility. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) produces Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which are developed to provide a shared standard for web content accessibility.

“If a website meets WCAG, it will go a long way to meeting the needs of older users who have reduced visual contrast sensitivity and color perception; reduced dexterity and fine motor control; difficulty hearing higher-pitched sounds and separating sounds; and/or reduced cognitive ability,” says Shawn Lawton Henry, W3C’s outreach coordinator for its Web Accessibility Initiative.

(See WC3’s information on “Older Users and Web Accessibility” for more information.)

The other thing that will help designers and technologists according to Henry? “Involve older people and people with disabilities in evaluating and improving their website.”

Older consumers are ready participants in the process agrees Irving, who is also distinguished scholar in residence at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology. “They are willing to be engaged. And there are millions of them. That’s an opportunity for developers, marketers, advertisers not just to presume they understand what works, but really, to ask.”

Janet Kornblum

Janet Kornblum is a writer, media trainer and private investigator based in Northern California. She has written about technology and culture for years and is hopelessly addicted to gadgets.

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