There's a significant kind of countdown that kicked off this month that far too few people are thinking about — and I don't mean the shopping days left 'til next Christmas.
On Jan. 1 the parade of baby boomers turning 60 began. The good news is that 60 is no longer a signal for slowing down or dropping out. It is, however, the turning point for age-related disabilities.
The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that our population age 65-84 will increase by 39 percent — about 31 million people — by 2010 and to a whopping 47 million by the year 2020.
Now consider some facts regarding age-related disabilities. Thirty-one million Americans today have difficulty hearing and 19 million difficulty seeing. Breaking those disabilities into age groups, we have 30 percent of those aged 65-74 who have difficulty hearing and 46 percent of those over 75 do. Vision loss increases at a similar rate, with 15 percent of those 65-74 experiencing difficulty seeing and 21 percent over age 75 having limited vision. About 14 percent of Americans say they have moderate mobility difficulties.
Do the math. With the likelihood of these and other conditions increasing dramatically with age and the numbers of people over 65 increasing dramatically as well, we're talking a huge growth spurt coming up in the disability population. In other words, if we're not going to be caught in an immobilizing social crisis, our collective interest in programs, services, technology and techniques benefiting people with disabilities should be on the rise as well.
Still not convinced this has anything to do with you? Consider the following.
Do you or anyone over 40 you know have difficulty seeing that ubiquitous small print on food and software packages? Does the red on black restaurant menu (in a dimly lit corner) cause anyone you know to get closer to the page and squint?
Is there a baby boomer in your world who shies away from noisy environments because hearing is difficult or who insists on good lighting because he/she needs to see faces to understand what others are saying? Is there a member in your household who cranks the television up so loud that others want to put pillows over their heads?
And what about all those knee replacements, hip replacements, angioplasties and carpal tunnel wrist guards? Are there people in your life who look for more comfortable seating, lighter-weight tools or flatter paths when walking?
The point is we live longer and we live healthier for the most part, and there's reason to believe that happy trend will only continue. But eyes and ears and joints — not to mention intangibles such as memory and stamina — inevitably diminish with age. If we're going to enjoy ourselves as we live longer and healthier, it behooves all of us to pay more attention to concepts of accessibility and usability of products and services in the environment.
If "universal design" doesn't mean much to you now, maybe it should. Do you notice such design features as gently sloping ramps, automatic doors or elevators as an alternative to the escalator or stairs? Does it register on your consciousness when you've entered an acoustically friendly room that facilitates hearing or a well-lit environment and/or larger print that makes orienting and reading a more effortless affair?
Do you notice when your legislators support or fail to support such issues as accessible voting polls and machines, funding for assistive technology, rules regarding captioning or audio description on television? What about captioning, description and ample space for wheelchair seating in movie theaters, football stadiums or concert halls?
Do you patronize businesses that incorporate universal design and ask others why they don't?
While the concept of universal design is catching on and many of these elements are in our environment, we have a long, long way to go. Start noticing them.
When you do see a lowered drinking fountain at the mall or an earphone jack on your bank's ATM — yes, many of them now do indeed speak the onscreen prompts — don't reflect on how "sweet" it is that business X, Y or Z is doing something for "those people."
Swarms among us will be joining the ranks of "those people" in a steady stream over the next decade or so and, in view of that, it makes more sense to look around, educate yourself about universal design and general accessibility and begin seeing its value as planning for your own future.