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Feature image Web Accessibility for the Elderly

We all age, it’s just a fact of life. Using technology might be easy for you now. You’re able to keep up with the latest trends, adapt to rapidly changing interfaces, and develop a pretty nuanced understanding of new systems. That’s all well and good for now, but what’s going to happen as you age?

Let’s Figure It Out Now

A lot of users are already facing this issue. The people who were foundational in developing technology are starting to need accommodations to use the things they helped create. Instead of seeing this as a setback, we need to approach web accessibility for the elderly as an opportunity. If we create technology so adaptable that it ages with us, then it’s one less battle we’ll need to fight when we’re older. The immediate need is already here; I know I want to be able to chat with my elderly grandparents no matter where I live. Technology helps me to do that, and I need to do whatever I can to make the technology work for them. Hopefully that’s enough of a reason for all of us to consider new ways to approach making technology more accessible.

Why It’s Important

Well, for one thing we need to make sure webpages are held to accessibility standards. Accessibility laws are in place for a reason. If you’re not familiar with the WCAG 2.0 guidelines, there is a handy overview post on this blog to help guide you. Accessibility helps everyone, not just the elderly. We all will likely end up with a temporary or situational disability at some point, and it’s good to know that there is a working system in place when these issues arise.

You may not need accommodations now, but put yourself in your grandparents’ shoes (or elderly neighbor or aging coworker, whatever works best). Have you ever see them squinting to read the text on a website? Sometimes they’ll even need to remove their glasses to see the screen. This means that the way the technology is functioning isn’t working for them.

Sometimes the person will also mention how old they’re getting or lament how tiny the screen is. While these comments are typically brushed aside, they shouldn’t be handled with such callousness. Someday, we’ll all be there and we will wish that we had been more patient and helpful when we saw these problems cropping up in the first place. I’m already there, my eyes require the modifications that most people would conflate with old age. No one should be made to feel embarrassed or ashamed of their capability level. It can be especially hard for people who are aging to admit to themselves that they need accommodations, they should absolutely never have to be singled out publicly for needing them. The purpose of universal design is that it makes everyone feel included, and strives to design things that are useful to as much of the population as possible. Our goal is to get as much of our technology to a standard where it accommodates as many people as possible without limiting innovation.

Which Accommodations Help?

That depends a lot on the individual, but there are a few things that are pretty helpful for most elderly people.

1. Enlarged Font

I’m typing this in 10-point font. I will be editing in zoomed in to about 200% after I write it. The fact that I’m able to enlarge the text is extremely helpful, but it isn’t always the case. Outside the comfort zone of a Word document, things can get a little more difficult. Many websites don’t count on users enlarging the text. When you zoom in things are distorted and even cut off. WCAG 2.0 standards state that users need to be able to zoom in on website content to 200% without losing functionality.[1] A lot of sites don’t allow for that, and therefore alienate a lot of users while also not following basic accessibility standards.

2. Color Contrast

I recently received an email that had gray font on a gray background. I could barely see the body of the message, and a lot of elderly users likely have the same issue. The text on a website needs readable, and not blend into the background. If you have a website and want to check on your color contrast to see if it’s acceptable, there are some great contrast checkers you can use. Head over to the post about color contrast checkers to find the one that’s best for you (it only takes a few minutes!).

3. Keyboard Navigation

Have you ever gotten (carpel tunnel syndrome? or) a hand cramp or a papercut that made using your trackpad or mouse less than comfortable? Well, there’s actually a way to navigate websites that uses just your keyboard instead of the conventional methods. Elderly people often have trouble with fine motor skills and conditions such as arthritis can keep them from using the standard navigation tools. However, a lot of websites fail to account for keyboard navigation. If you want to know what the best way to optimize your website so that people can easily get around using just their keyboard, WebAIM made an extremely useful guide to help you out.

4. Content with Subtitles

Hearing loss is common in elderly people, but this doesn’t mean they should have to miss out on getting to experience the wonderful (and sometimes less than wonderful) world of web videos and other content with sound. Having subtitled content allows users who are hard of hearing to follow along without issue. If you have content on your website that might be tough for elderly users to hear, make sure to include text descriptions and/or subtitles whenever you can.

How Can We Help?

Of course, I have to recommend installing the UserWay widget on your website. It’s a simple (and free) tool that gives users access to accessibility modifications for your site without making you change any of the code.  It provides users with the option to enlarge text, change page contrast, highlight links, and more. The widget works whether users are viewing the site on their phone or computer, so it’s extremely useful no matter what device they’re using.

You can also help by paying attention and thinking of new ways to modify technology. While you might not be directly involved in making apps or devices, there are a lot of other ways you can influence the digital world. You might have your own website that you can make more accessible. You might even consider volunteering to helping teach elderly people about the modifications available to them, or how to use technology in general. It’s important that we include the elderly population in our digital revolution to gain new perspectives and insights that we might otherwise miss, all while making sure they have access to the content they need.

Have you noticed gaps in technology usability as you age? What modifications do you think are the most helpful? Let us know what you use and what you think tech companies need to consider to make technology easier for our aging friends and family in the comments below.