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AT and older workers

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Changes are occurring in the workplace regarding older workers that will lead to even more profound shifts in the next 5-10 years. Currently, there are over 16 million Americans over 55 who are working or actively seeking employment. By 2015, the number of employees over 55 will reach a record 31.9 million, compared to 18.4 million in 2000 (Go60.com, 2003). It is not uncommon to know of workers in their upper 60s and 70s in most segments of the workplace. Financial need, longer life expectancy, and a desire to remain working are reasons that the workforce of individuals aged 55 and older continues to grow (Hall and Mirvis 1994). Many individuals retire from one job, start to draw a pension, and then realize that work is still an important or financially essential part of their lives. Herz (1995) points out that since 1984, both the full- and part-time work of "retired" men younger than age 65 has increased noticeably.

When we take into account unpaid and volunteer work in many segments of our workplace, such as health care and education, the contributions of older workers becomes even more evident.

Matching a person’s capabilities and interests with job demands and requirements is important for workers of any age. Reasonable accommodations and the application of assistive technology (AT) can aid workers in functioning more effectively in their jobs. Many of the solutions used to accommodate workers with disabilities can also solve work-related problems of older workers. However, most older workers would not indicate that they are disabled, even though they may encounter "functional limitations" that are similar to those faced by persons with disabilities. In reviewing the websites that are listed for older workers, there is little, if any, reference to how aids or devices could be used on the job.

Older workers with vision, hearing, dexterity, memory, attention, standing, and/or sitting impairments may encounter difficulties on the job. There are a variety of AT aids and other useful products available to address the issues that older workers may experience. Strategies and adjustments to the environment may also be beneficial to the older worker. Here a some suggestions for accommodating for the needs of older workers:


Contents

Vision Issues

For individuals who have difficulty seeing things, there are products that magnify, have voice/sound output, provide contrast, reduce glare, have enlarged text or numbers, and offer tactile markings. For the computer, there are many options for changing settings and adding additional software. Microsoft and Apple have specific information on their web sites listing accessibility features.[1] and [2] Changing the type (e.g., fluorescent, incandescent) and intensity of overhead and task/workstation lighting can also make things easier to see.


Hearing Issues

There are amplification, signaling/alerting, and visual display devices that can assist a worker who has hearing difficulties. Amplification devices can be attached to a phone or worn by an individual (assistive listening devices (ALD)). Signaling and alerting equipment can be built-in or attached to office equipment to blink or flash when a sound occurs. If an individual already wears a hearing aid(s), make sure that any additional AT is compatible with the equipment. Workers with a hearing loss should reduce extraneous or distractive noise to maximize residual hearing. Additionally, workers can inform others of their hearing loss to minimize possible communication difficulties.


Dexterity Issues

Workers with disease, injury, pain, or other issues affecting hand(s) use could possibly benefit from AT that eliminates or minimizes hand/finger movement, gripping, grasping or turning actions, repetitive motions, and the need to sustain fixed hand/finger position for long durations. Strategies or AT for workers with these issues should integrate ergonomic principles. Specialized keyboards and mouse options, wrist/arm rests, gripping or pointing aids, and computer software are all examples of AT that may assist older workers who have dexterity issues.


Memory and Attention Issues

Assistive Technology devices for memory and attention difficulties may be used throughout the day, during certain tasks or activities, or to denote a specific event. The devices may remind a worker about something or prompt him or her through a sequence of events. Memory or attention aids can provide visual, auditory, and/or tactile alerts to the worker and may be portable or integrated into other office equipment. Individuals who have memory or attention issues may use personal device assistants (PDAs), calendars (electronic, software, paper-based), watches, timers, and/or graphic aids (e.g., photos or illustrations) as AT at work.


Standing and Sitting Issues

Both sitting and standing without proper support and positioning can be uncomfortable for many workers, especially older workers. An ergonomic workstation can help prevent or alleviate pain and discomfort that may be experienced by individuals who have arthritis, previous injuries, poor circulation, or a variety of other issues. Proper seating and/or standing options are the most significant pieces of an ergonomic workstation. It is ideal to have adjustable furniture and office equipment to accommodate muscle fatigue and postural changes throughout the day. Older workers may also benefit from frequent positioning breaks (stretching or readjusting), sit/stand workstations, padded or supportive flooring (for long periods of standing), and standing stools (stools to lean on when standing).

There clearly is a benefit for older workers to be more aware of universally designed products and various types of assistive technology. Efforts to better educate the general public and older workers in particular are needed. Assistive technology providers may find new opportunities to work more with older workers and expand their collaboration with employers, especially in exploring how simple low-cost accommodation options can make the workplace safer and more productive.


Resources

  • Experience Works is a national, nonprofit organization that provides training and employment services for mature workers. Established in 1965 as Green Thumb, and renamed Experience Works in 2002, the organization reaches more than 125,000 mature individuals in all 50 states and Puerto Rico each year. - http://www.experienceworks.org


Author: Tony Langton
Affiliation: Originally published in the March 2003 TC Direct Newsletter for the NIDRR-funded Tech Connections project.