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Apr. 18, 2014 11:30 am

‘Gray hair does not mean senile’: how seniors fit into digital access

Older Americans, like those with disabilities and other access challenges, are not often included in conversations about increasing web inclusivity. They should be.

How can technology be more accessible to the disability and aging communities?

First generation growth of the web and the endless technologies that have followed are largely designed for those who don’t have disabilities — visual, sensory or physical, among others — to overcome. Likewise, though digital literacy continues to grow among senior citizens, many older Americans remain on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Often times fear masquerades as indifference among why some in these groups haven’t adopted technology uses, said Tobey Dichter, founder and CEO of Generations on Line, a University City nonprofit digital readiness group for seniors. There are real reasons why some are inhibited from becoming active consumers of technology. She was speaking at Tapping into the Invisible Consumer Base, an event that welcomed more than 50 at the Free Library of Philadelphia in partnership with GenPhilly and the Philadelphia Link during Philly Tech Week.

An individual may discover Internet illiteracy when attempting basic use after a lifetime of independence. Another might be embarrassed that instructions are given at a speed that is incomprehensible, as most applications are designed and assumed to be intuitive. There is also concern that a device might break, Dichter said.

These stem from a generational difference, as a lot of people who feel this way have lived through a time when they could not “unburn the toast,” and failure was definitive, she said.

So, what can successfully motivate a person to overcome the intimidation, limited skill, or difficulty to gain access to technology? Any reluctance of facing fears will quickly dissipate when it becomes apparent that technology is a means to  stay engaged.

The social isolation many older adults experience is yet another disability, as communicating with family members and other people in their communities becomes increasingly hard, understanding technology can easily prevent the resulting lack of self-worth and alienation, Dichter said. The immediate benefits are not always conspicuous to everyone.

Technology must be presented in a way that makes sense to its audience.

“This has nothing to do with intelligence. Gray hair does not mean senile,” Bill Thompson, an older adult software trainer, explained. Information must be given in a relative way, particularly to those who view the internet as foreign.

Philadelphia has a wealth of programs and companies that strive to make more appropriate services to engage all members of society. Sandra McNally, Director of Pennsylvania’s Initiative on Assistive Technology, was on the event’s panel and shared helpful information on behalf of her organization, including a description of its services. One invaluable way PIAT helps is by loaning assistive technology devices, at no cost, to try out at home, school, or work. The cost of purchasing such tools is often prohibitive, so to have a way for individuals to test something before investing in a product is a prime example of how Philly works hard to serve assisted communities.

The discussion aimed to address the challenges and opportunities related to technology within the disability and aging communities but also served as a setup to another related event. GenPhilly and the Philadelphia Link are partnering with Technically Philly on HACK4ACCESS, a disability and aging-focused hackathon that will serve as this year’s Random Hacks of Kindness during the National Civic Day of Hacking scheduled to take place the weekend of May 30 to June 1, with sponsorship from Drexel University.

Read more about the event on this writer’s personal blog here.

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Angie Hilem is a community builder and manager living in South Philadelphia by way of New Jersey. She stays active, lives intentionally and has a really great puppy.

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