such as one person with a visual impairment.
However, visual impairments include complete
blindness, limited vision, motion blindness, severe
color blindness, and other variations. Every type of
disability (mobility, hearing, visual, cognitive, and
others) includes such layers. To truly test for equal
access, not only must different types of disabilities
be accounted for, but different levels of each disability must be considered as well [ 3].
Disability and accessibility also link strongly to
age. Just as a child and an older adult will each
approach ICTs in unique ways, the ways in which
a person with a disability approaches an ICT will
be influenced by the age at which that individual
first acquired a disability. Someone born with a
disability will perceive, adjust, accommodate, and
overcome challenges in a different manner from
someone who acquires a disability as a youth, as
an adult, or as an older adult [ 2]. While none of
these approaches will necessarily be more effective, the process by which a child accesses an ICT
may vary greatly between a child without a disability, a child born with a disability, and a child
who acquired a disability.
Designing for intergenerational universal
usability can also benefit from considering the
parallels between the needs of different age
groups and persons with disabilities. Just as
children and older adults will both benefit from
certain design features, designs that provide
improved access for persons with physical and
cognitive disabilities will greatly improve access
for older adults. Persons with disabilities and older
adults can be limited in their access to and use
of ICTs by a wide range of factors. Online, these
barriers can range from accessibility problems
with Internet service providers to Web browsers
that are not compatible with vital assistive technologies to inaccessible websites. Adjustable font
size, simple color schemes, clutter-free interfaces,
intuitive organization, and easy navigability on a
website, for example, will be of great benefit both
to older adults and persons with disabilities (and
probably to many young users, as well).
The lessons of disability studies for designing for
intergenerational universal usability of ICTs will
likely become more significant as social networking becomes a core part of Internet activity. Social
networking activities have broadened the Internet
from simple information access to emphasizing
communication between users. Providing equal
access takes on very different dimensions when
the focus is on equal access to communication
rather than equal access to information, and older
adults and persons with disabilities will benefit
from many of the same approaches to and guidelines for accessibility of social networking sites
and applications [ 4].
Ultimately, the most fundamental—and likely
the most difficult—accessibility challenge is in
the fact that access is a multifaceted concept.
Access is larger than just physical dimensions
(reaching an ICT) and intellectual dimensions
(understanding the information provided by the
ICT). There are also social dimensions of access
that dictate how an individual will use the information in their social interactions [ 5]. The social
dimensions of access are under-studied by scholars, but it seems quite possible that social access
presents another area in which the needs of
persons with disabilities intersect with the needs
of older adults. Since both groups face similar
challenges in accessing ICTs, they likely share
important social characteristics in attitudes
toward ICTs and how to treat information gained
While these are just a sampling of potential
connections of persons with disabilities to children and older adults in terms of access to ICTs,
the examples discussed in this article hopefully
demonstrate the value of lessons from disability
studies in designing for intergenerational universal usability. In my reply to the email that began
this discussion, I explained that, while there
will be differences in experiences in academia
for a scholar who has been visually impaired his
entire life and for a scholar who became mobility
impaired as an adult, the similarities will be much
more compelling and helpful than the differences.
The same seems to hold true for considerations of
disability-related issues and age-related issues in
designing for universal usability.
[ 3] Jaeger, P. T. “
User-centered policy evaluations of Section 508
of the Rehabilitation
Act: Evaluating e-gov-ernment websites for
accessibility.” Journal of
Disability Policy Studies
19, no. 1 (2008): 24-33.
[ 4] Jaeger, P. T., and B.
Xie. “Developing online
guidelines for persons
with disabilities and
older adults.” Journal of
Disability Policy Studies.
[ 5] Burnett, G., P. T.
Jaeger, and K. M.
Thompson. “The social
aspects of information
access: The viewpoint
of normative theory of
Library & Information
no. 1 (2008): 56-66.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Paul T. Jaeger, Ph.D., J.D., is an assistant professor in the College of Information Studies and is the director of the Center for Information Policy and Electronic Government
( www.cipeg.umd.edu) at the University of Maryland. His research
focuses on the ways in which law and public policy shape access
to and use of information. Jaeger is the author of more than 70 journal articles and book chapters, along with six books.
May + June 2009
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