Digital Accessibility for older Persons
Due to the demographic change, the accessibility of digital technology is becoming more and more important. In this article you will find out why this is the case and what is important when it comes to accessibility for older persons.
Seniors are the fastest growing group on the internet. On the one hand, of course, because the first group for whom a computer is part of everyday life is gradually getting older. Seniors are generally the fastest growing group in society.
On the other hand, because seniors are actually the only group that is not yet widely represented on the Internet, at least in Germany. Let's take a look at some of the problems that seniors can encounter on the Internet.
Strong vs. weak disability
Latent limitations of the sensory organs and the ability to move, which are common in old age, can have a completely different effect than more severe disabilities in younger persons. Birth disabilities have an advantage in that they have never had to adjust in relation to their disability. Anyone who is born blind may not find it beautiful. But he didn't have to relearn. Anyone who is disabled in the course of their life or who experiences drastic changes must adapt. The younger the person is, the better the chances that they will manage this adjustment process.
In old age, on the other hand, many latent limitations often come together at the same time. The person can adapt, but has less time to learn strategies and how to use tools. In addition, there are factors such as social isolation, financial poverty, psychological problems, an unsuitable housing situation and much more, which can also have a negative impact on adaptability. But the most important factor in our context is the combination of different restrictions. If all the senses and the physique, the memory and the resilience are challenged at the same time, well, that would overwhelm even the youngest among us.
In addition, many restrictions are not even noticed or misinterpreted. Poor hearing is said to be mistaken for dementia. Or the other way around.
Of course I assume how the situation seems to be today. There is much to suggest that today's 60 or 50 year olds will have a different habit than today's senior citizens. Nevertheless: the health restrictions will occur. The generation of screen workers and smartphone users in particular will perhaps have to struggle with physical problems even earlier than the generation of body workers. That remains to be seen.
If we disregard the eye diseases that are typical of old age, such as diabetic retinopathy and AMD, the myopia factor plays a particularly important role. The number of persons affected will increase due to the intensive use of smartphones and screens at work.
A lack of contrast is also common in old age. This makes it harder to work or read on the screen. Especially the small smartphones and small tablets with modest display quality could pose a problem. Here, however, we have the advantage that the pinch-to-zoom gesture is relatively intuitive and mobile pages allow a large increase in size without major problems. Contrast and bad typography are another issue.
With YouTube, Netflix and Co., the topic of audio quality is gradually becoming more important again.
Differentiating between important and unimportant sounds becomes more difficult with age. We often have a mush of voice and background sound. Yesterday I stood at a not particularly crowded Leipzig main station. There was a constant loud noise probably from a stopped train. It was not possible for me to understand the announcements correctly. Similarly, if the music in a video is too loud, it will be difficult to understand a speaker.
In general, I see two possibilities: On the one hand, voice and background could be recorded separately. Then it would be up to the listener to turn down the background sound. Appropriate formats and players are of course required for this.
The second possibility would be intelligent players. They could recognize the voice and amplify it. Corresponding programs already exist in hearing aids. I don't know if that's transferrable.
A topic that has been underestimated so far is the question of mobility. There is already help in smartphones. However, fast or delicate movements become more difficult with increasing age. Even a double tap or a scroll movement is a challenge.
Alternative input methods could be a solution here. An example of this is intelligent voice input such as with Alexa or Siri, i.e. voice input for which no or only a few commands have to be learned. Once the shyness of talking to the computer is gone, there is probably no easier access to digital systems. It would be desirable if these systems became more widespread and enabled more complex interactions such as filling out forms. Narrator could read the question and Narrator would process and relay the answer. The web interfaces can possibly be adapted accordingly. However, it must become much easier to avoid and correct spelling mistakes.
Disregarding diseases such as dementia, the ability to remember information decreases noticeably with age, without a disease having to be present. Memory is extremely important for the Internet: Which link have I already clicked on, what information was in the first part of the text, what should I have ready again if I have to fill out this form within two minutes? Above all, the short-term memory is required.
Some things have been part of everyday life for decades: Visited links have a different color than unvisited links. Subheadings make it easier to scan and memorize the text. In any case, timeouts should be designed in such a way that they do not put anyone under stress. More help still needs to be developed.
I see one of the big problems today and in the future in the very complex information architecture of public sites in particular. As mere mortals, we usually deal with the local authorities. They are the slowest when it comes to implementing current developments. Just look at the number of city portals that can be used on smartphones. The fact that a large part of private internet traffic runs via smartphones today does not seem to have reached the cities.
But if older persons are mainly introduced to the Internet via tablets, they are even more overwhelmed than we are. We old hands don't look at the accident at all, but search on Google and jump at least two clicks closer to what we need. But if you are new to the Internet, you may not be aware of these and other tricks.
Therefore, the information architecture of websites needs to be radically simplified.
It is optimistic that e-government will also play an increasing role in Germany over the next 30 years. The nightmare of many blind persons could come true: long web forms and if you want to send it off, three captchas have to be solved, maybe a bot wants to apply for blind money.
Here, too, the topic is radical simplification: forms are segmented into several pages, only really relevant information is queried, switching between the different segments is possible without data loss, inconsistencies and incorrect entries are marked immediately. The logic is simple and impressive and applies here, if at all: Every minute that is put into the optimization saves around 1000 minutes of working time on both sides. A nationwide solution would be desirable, as more resources could then be invested in optimization. In addition, a uniform information design facilitates the handling of different forms. It's okay, I keep dreaming.
Integrated help is gaining in importance
It is positive that all major systems address the issue of accessibility in their systems. Along with Linux, Apple is certainly a pioneer here. Microsoft and Google are now following suit. In MacOS, Windows, Android, iOS and Linux there is now a wide range of aids for the visually impaired, hearing impaired and persons with restricted mobility. There is still a lack of help for persons with memory problems, but maybe that will come.
The persons who benefit the most are those who do not have or need access to professional assistance technology. Many persons are reluctant to buy assistive devices or simply don't know they exist. In particular, there is the problem that more and more aids are being developed and the health insurance company pays less and less or has introduced a processing time that seems Soviet-style.
At least when using digital technology, older persons benefit from the fact that the help is already integrated in the system and is relatively easy to configure and use. The Narrator on Windows 10, for example, which otherwise doesn't convince me, has a voice that is easy to understand for untrained ears and a visual menu. This makes it easier for the visually impaired to use and the threshold is significantly lower than NVDA or Jaws with its nested configuration menu from the "let's put everything somewhere where there is space" hell. Windows has long had an assistant that makes it easier to configure the accessibility features. Auxiliary technology must be made much easier to use overall.