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Baby boomers driving change – again

As the average retirement age is nudged upward, technology developers will start catering to the elderly and disabled. Here’s how.

A recent survey by the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) shows that seven in 10 Americans plan on working past the once-typical retirement age of 65, and nearly half expect to work well into their 70s and 80s.

In addition, according to Joseph Quinn, economics professor at Boston College and fellow at the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) in Washington, D.C., the baby-boomer generation is not likely to retire at an early age due to more employment options they have now than with past generations.

As a result of baby boomers staying in the workforce longer, computing and IT technologies will need to change to help this audience remain productive. Assistive technologies are already being put to use by the disabled population in the United States. By taking an inclusive approach to technology development, the same technologies that benefit the disabled will help the baby boomer population remain productive for years to come.

The good news is that accessible technologies for the disabled already have many mainstream applications that can help the aging workforce. For example, the Braille keyboards available to visually impaired users a generation ago have evolved into hands-free technology, something that anyone who uses a cell phone while driving a car can appreciate. In addition, closed-captioning for television developed for the deaf or hard of hearing is also being used on TV sets in public areas by restaurant owners.

In addition, pervasive computing, wireless communications, speech and voice-activated applications, better tracking devices, on-screen keyboards, and alternative input/output devices are among the areas that have evolved for persons with disabilities. Such products and services are helping meet the demand of aging baby boomers who now need reading glasses to see or whose hearing is diminished. There are already forward-thinking organizations in the marketplace that play a role in bringing accessible technologies to the aging. For example, SeniorNet, the largest provider of computer and Internet education for older adults and seniors in the U.S., has partnered with IBM to develop “Web Adaptation Technology.” Web Adaptation Technology allows users to reformat Web pages according to their individual preferences and makes the Web more accessible by enhancing the readability of Web pages, reading text out loud, making the browser and keyboard easier to use. The technology was developed in response to the need for an easy-to-use application that is appropriate for novice users who have trouble using the Web because of vision or certain motor skills issues. Federal Legislation In the United States, another factor driving demand for accessible products and services is federal legislation that requires accommodations for persons with disabilities, which will translate into benefits for baby boomers.

The U.S. government has expanded a 30-year law to include a new section that requires technology in federal work areas – ranging from printers, faxes and computers to software applications on computers – to be more accessible to persons with disabilities. This legislation, an amendment to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, also recognizes the increased role that e-government plays in distributing information. The amendment requires workplace information and on-line information – as well as the office workplace – to be accessible to both federal workers and citizens who use federal Web sites.

Federal agencies are already complying with this new regulation. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization recently updated its Web site to make forms and tabulated materials more accessible. The Web site is designed to foster use of businesses owned by women, disadvantaged persons and small businesses as subcontractors on U.S. federal contracts.

With the federal government paving the way for accessible technologies, many predict that state and local governments will follow suite. The momentum gained by the government side will help forward-thinking companies realize the benefits of making their products, services and information available to the widest possible audience.

The Value of an Aging Workforce Aging individuals often bring a world of experience, are more mature and often have a better work ethic than their younger counterparts Companies that embrace accessible technologies for the aging workforce will have a clear competitive advantage.

Unfortunately, many companies don’t seem to be embracing this age group. The number of age discrimination claims filed with the Equal Opportunity Commission has increased 23.5 percent in the past two years, making it the fastest growing category of discrimination cases.

This trend can be reversed by providing aging workers with the tools needed to remain productive. For example, The National Council of the Aging recommends implementing alternative work arrangements, including compressed work weeks, telecommuting, and job sharing to recruit and retain aging workers.

From a technology perspective, the first step is to stop thinking of accessible technologies as mere “add-ons” for disabled people and to create “embedded” technologies that benefit all workers, including the aging and disabled. For example, here’s a snapshot of existing embedded technologies that IT professionals can use to help make their offerings more beneficial for both the aging and the disabled:

Services that help analyze, fix and maintain Web sites to be accessible to persons with disabilities and comply with federal regulations. These services include text-to-speech technologies that “read” Web pages aloud, as well as tools that make Web sites accessible by making changes such as transforming colors on a Web site to colors easily seen by people with cataracts.

E-learning services that help organizations make audio, text and slide presentations accessible for persons with disabilities, as well as tools that make it easier to quickly develop accessible, e-learning content for distance learning and online learning.

A technology that allows for the creation of accessible multimedia presentations by providing “captioning” services. There are many universities worldwide that are already using this technology to create captioning for lectures.

These technologies are an important step in helping the aging community stay productive. If we all embrace the reality that people will be working later in life, the innovations will be boundless. All people, whether aged or disabled, will be able to work side-by-side, keeping them happy and productive for as long as they desire to work.

Frances West is Director of World Wide Accessibility Center for IBM.

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