Technology Accommodations for Older Workers: The Latest Is Not Always the Greatest

The country is aging and so is the workforce. According to the 2012 Census, there were over four million full-time workers age 65 and older. The aging process can bring with it a gradual decrease in vision, hearing, and physical abilities. Jobs that were once easy for a 30 or 40-year-old to perform can become challenging for a 60 or 70-year-old. For example, in our work, some veterans have told us that war wounds sustained in the 1960s and 1970s are only now starting to take their toll, inducing new mobility and dexterity limitations. For the older worker, there can be a blurry line between preferring to continue doing a task with difficulty, and realizing an accommodation would be helpful.

When older employees reach a point where a reasonable accommodation is needed, the challenge for the specialist performing the needs assessment is to find the technology that will be effective (ensuring that it provides the necessary access), and that employees feel comfortable using. This involves politely (or sometimes bluntly) gauging employees’ ability to adapt to new technology and figuring out how much time employees are willing to put into learning to operate the device and managing changes required to integrate the technology into their work environment. 

Many older employees didn’t grow up in an age where cell phones, computers and the internet were ingrained in everyday life. We have found that compared to the millennial generation, baby boomers have embraced technology to varying degrees. Some are quite adept at using an iPhone with a variety of helpful apps to overcome physical and sensory limitations, whereas others prefer a flip cellphone and magnifying glass.

Section 504 legislation came from the need to provide accommodations for people with disabilities. However, older people often do not think of themselves, or want to be thought of by others, as “disabled” and will avoid assistive technologies that they think will make them appear so. Consequently, in an age of advanced technologies, we are seeing the revitalization of low-tech accommodations for use in the workplace. “Old school” solutions are proving much more effective for the aging workforce. Some recent examples that we have seen include:

  • Speech recognition software was considered too labor-intensive for an older employee to learn, but an ergonomic keyboard combined with an ergonomic pointing device was effective.
  • A simple pencil grip allowing for a sufficient grasp was better than the new-fangled electronic note-taking aid.
  • A magnification device with all the electronic bells and whistles was overwhelming, but a simple magnifier did the trick.
  • Amplification added to a desk phone combined with a better visual signal was a better alternative to a captioned telephone.
  • Rather than using an FM system, sitting up close in training and meetings was a more acceptable functional accommodation.

The key points to remember are that (1) age-related accommodations may require consideration of either low-tech or high-tech alternatives; and (2) a measure of tact may be needed in working with those needing age-related accommodations to determine the most successful solution.

Kristen Smith is a Section 504 Accommodations Specialist who coordinates the employee accommodation process at a large federal agency.  She has expertise in assistive technology, Section 508 document compliance, ergonomics and Section 504 policy.

Chris Law, PhD, is a Senior Accessibility Analyst with expertise in organizational behavior, corporate culture and disability. He has over 20 years of experience in IT accessibility, Section 508 and universal design.