The Harm in Conflating Aging With Accessibility

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The Harm in Conflating Aging With Accessibility
Communications of the ACM, JJuly 2021, Vol. 64 No. 7, Pages 66-71
Contributed Articles
By Bran Knowles, Vicki L. Hanson, Yvonne Rogers, Anne Marie Piper, Jenny Waycott, Nigel Davies, Aloha Hufana Ambe, Robin N. Brewer, Debaleena Chattopadhyay, Marianne Dee, David Frohlich, Marisela Gutierrez-Lopez, Ben Jelen, Amanda Lazar, Radoslaw Nielek, Belén Barros Pena, Abi Roper, Mark Schlager, Britta Schulte, Irene Ye Yuan

“Diversity nourishes insight and innovation; it helps society to become more empathetic, and design more compassionate technologies.”


“The quest for youth—so futile. Age and wisdom have their graces too.”— Jean Luc Picard


It is an increasingly global phenomenon that societies promote the notion of youth as the preferred state.a In stark contrast to the “wise elder” of ages past, today old age is assumed to be marked by loss of physical and cognitive ability, diminished relevance, and as we are sadly seeing with the COVID-19 pandemic, devalued humanity. In many ways, it is not surprising that such stereotypes are reflected in our technologies: tech companies compete for territory in an already overcrowded youth market; whereas older adults, if considered users at all, are offered little more than fall alarms, activity monitors, and senior-friendly (often lower functionality) versions of existing tools. Meanwhile, there is a growing trend of workers aging out of the tech industry as early as their mid-40s, reflecting the higher value placed on the perspectives of those who represent the default target demographic.


ACM has produced a Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, which affirms the importance of computing technologies being accessible as well as meeting the social needs of a diverse population of users. In light of such principles, it is ethically problematic that individuals toward the far (and particularly farthest) end of the age spectrum are clearly the lesser beneficiaries of digital technologies. There are competing views on why this is the case. On the one hand, older adults are more likely than younger adults to have multiple health related constraints which can present difficulties in using standard (or, shall we say, poorly designed) technologies. But differences in technology adoption rates between young and old may more accurately reflect technologies’ lack of appeal to older adults than their inaccessibility. After all, healthy older adults have been shown to reject digital technologies when they are perceived to be in conflict with “what matters” in their lives and to society at large.


It is our contention that usability concerns have for too long overshadowed questions about the usefulness and acceptability of digital technologies for older adults. In this article, we confront the uneasy relationship between accessibility and aging research—specifically, the assumption that the two fall under the same umbrella despite the fact that aging is neither an illness nor a disability. Our point is not that the phenomenon of disability represents a comparatively simple challenge for designers, as assistive devices and accessibility adaptations are inadequate for users with disabilities for many of the same reasons we highlight in this article. Instead, we argue that while accessibility research is important as one aspect of ensuring individuals are not unfairly discriminated against, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Aging research should be seen as a separate entity. As a basis from which more inclusive HCI and Aging research may spring, we eschew notions of “old age” in favor of the alternative framing of aging as a largely positive process to which all people are subject.



Thinking Differently, Designing Differently

Having identified the problems with the current view of aging in HCI, there are clear alternatives. We offer the following recommendations as an antidote to the harms identified earlier, directly mirroring each in turn:


Seek design inspiration in narratives of positive aging. It is worth pointing out that conflating aging with accessibility is not just a way of making aging more tractable as a design problem. It is really a mindset—a mindset that views the old as infirm, incompetent and in need of help. This view has its origins in the medical model of disability, whereas we are adopting a more social, positive and ultimately empowering model.


The first step in challenging this mindset is to consciously attend to the more positive aspects of the aging experience. Research and design could focus on the relative freedoms that older adults enjoy compared with those busy with child rearing or work life, and the space this opens up for being able to engage with questions about “what matters.” Thereby, retirement becomes not an end but a new beginning, a chance to re-invent oneself or renew interests in hobbies, to travel, or to volunteer in the community. Designers could look to older adults as “elders”—those experienced in the art of living whose advice society should actively seek as we design our world. [emphasis added]



Sidebar: What Makes Older Adults Interesting?

Older adults are not a well-defined category of user, in part because there is no set age that makes someone “older.” HCI and Aging research has largely failed to make clear what is different or interesting about older adults beyond their likeliness to experience usability issues related to age-related physical and/or cognitive decline. We have debunked this already as the sole reason for focusing on older adults; and yet there are several contextual factors that make older adults uniquely interesting to research and design for.


Life experiences. Older adults have lived through more/different historical events and cultural shifts, which shape their view of the world, even if in different ways to one another.


Technology biographies. As part of their life experiences, older people have learned a variety of technologies across their lifespan, not all of which have been digital. These inform the way they approach their interactions with new technologies and can contribute to discomfort with novel forms of interaction, particularly if introduced to them post-retirement. Most importantly, however, they shape their understandings of what makes for “good” or “bad” technologies.


Societal expectations. Whether an older person individually ascribes to positive or negative views of aging, they will be aware of and react to/against these narratives in ways that affect their use of technology. Older adults can be ageist against themselves and their peers, too, just like younger people. Lack of expectation for their proficiency or comfort with technology, however, allows older adults to voice criticisms of technology that others either take for granted or must suffer through as a necessary means of accomplishing everyday or work-related tasks.


Changing family structures. Often older adults have to navigate multigenerational bonds and caring responsibilities (for example, for spouses, grandchildren, friends, their own elderly parents), putting particular constraints on their time and energy.


Stage of life. While a luxury not all older adults are guaranteed, retirement can precipitate a number of dramatic changes in one’s social life, create new opportunities, and stimulate rapid identity building. As one perceives the end of life to be near (either due to advanced age or ill health), people seek more meaningful, emotionally fulfilling relationships (see socioemotional selectivity theory), thus giving them a new perspective on what might be important and not important when engaging with technologies.


Taken together, older adults offer a perspective that can deepen understanding of the effects of digital technologies, so that we, as designers, can better understand the trade-offs entailed by our design decisions. Also, actively engaging with older adults helps to mitigate designers’ own latent ageism—something one must do as a deliberate practice—resulting in technologies more likely to enrich the lives of those who are fortunate enough to arrive at older adulthood.

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About the Author:

Bran Knowles, Senior Lecturer in the Data Science Institute at Lancaster University, England, U.K..

See also:

  • ACM Code of Professional Ethics and Conduct. (2018) [In particular: “A computing professional should … 1.1. Contribute to society and to human well-being, acknowledging that all people are stakeholders in computing.”]
  • Why Ageism Never Gets Old: The prejudice is an ancient habit, but new forces—in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and beyond—have restored its youthful vitality. The New Yorker, November 13, 2017.
  • “[The article authors] note that some efforts are being made to include older adults in design and discussions about technology [see: Tech-enhanced Life] but there is still a long way to go.”