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Digital Exclusion For Older People Will Continue, Academic Warns

Today’s technologically-skilled young people are likely to face significant web accessibility problems as they grow older, similar to those faced by elderly computer users today, a professor of computing has said.

Speaking to E-Access Bulletin ahead of his talk at this week’s W4A web accessibility conference in Lyon, France ( http://www.w4a.info/2012/ ), Alan F. Newell, an emeritus professor at Dundee University’s School of Computing, said that he has “every expectation” that today’s young people will face problems using the web in the future, even if they currently have good computer skills. This will arise from their declining abilities (such as poorer eyesight, poorer cognition, poorer dexterity) struggling to cope with constant technological evolution, he said.

To counter these problems web designers must take into account the challenges that face elderly people – which they are not currently doing, Newell said. “Design is all about working to constraints, but web designers don’t see [challenges faced by elderly people] as a constraint they’re prepared to tackle.”

To help tackle the problem web designers should meet older computer users to find out more about the problems they face, Newell said. This would help designers to create sites that are used more easily by older people, which, in turn, would increase usability for everyone, following principles of universal design, he said.

Although older people are commonly seen as technologically inept, it is, in fact, the design flaws of the web which make it unusable by elderly people and other digitally disadvantaged groups, Newell said.

Drawing on lessons from his book published last year, ‘Design and the digital divide’, Newell said the issues faced by older people are different from those faced by younger computer users with disabilities.

“There has been significant work done on accessibility of websites for disabled people, but this tends to be focused on relatively young, highly motivated people with a single disability, but if you look at older people, they usually have multiple minor disabilities.”

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