From birth, we continually approach doorways to new experiences and opportunities and must be able to open those portals to have access to what is on the other side.
In the 1970s as a college English major, I took several education courses under the assumption that I would someday teach at the high school or university level. When it was time for my student-teaching experience, I was assigned to a local elementary school to assist a first-grade teacher who thought I could be best used to tutor one of her underperforming students with “a behavior problem” who needed extra help with his studies.
His name was Omar, the child of Egyptian immigrants. A small boy of slight build and unbounded energy, he sat in the last row of the class, put there because he was constantly restless, getting up out of his seat, talking with the kids around him and looking at their papers. The teacher thought he’d be less distracting to most of his classmates if he wasn’t in their line of sight.
For my first day, I sat behind Omar and observed his squirrely behavior. Soon the teacher allowed me to take him each day to the empty school cafeteria to work with him in a one-on-one session before lunchtime. She left it up to me to determine how I’d address his needs.
I found Omar to be an exceptionally bright boy. He asked me a lot of good questions as we worked on his ability to add numbers and to decipher letters and form them into words. And here’s where I got my clue about how to help him. Because his hands were always fidgeting as he spoke, I thought it might help him to focus if I gave him something to hold while he was reading the picture book we chose together.
The next day I brought in a bundle of pipe cleaners and put one in his hands. The strategy worked. Bending and unbending the pipe cleaner, he immediately calmed down and moved his face closer to the page. During reading, when he got stuck on a particular letter, I identified it and modeled its phonetic sound. Then I asked him to use the pipe cleaner to form its shape, say its name, and reproduce its sound. Soon we went through the entire alphabet together, forming all the letters’ shapes and saying aloud their sounds. We did the same thing with numerals from 1 to 9. He was delighted at his accomplishment.
Soon we were laying out those pipe cleaner letters and numerals on the cafeteria table to make entire words and create simple math problems. Day after day, Omar continued to make progress. He was no longer squirming. But I did notice that he continued to put his face unusually close to whatever page he was looking at.
I relayed my observation to his teacher and asked if Omar was ever tested for eye problems. She didn’t know and asked his parents. They told her that Omar had never been seen by an eye doctor and promptly had him examined. It turned out that the boy wasn’t a hyperactive child with behavior problems after all but instead had severe astigmatism, which kept him from seeing both the blackboard as well as what was right in front of him. That was why he was constantly moving around, asking his classmates what they were copying from the board and writing down. Omar was fitted with glasses and moved to the front of the class to give him greater accessibility to the board –– and to his teacher. And he thrived.
Omar’s story is one we all share because it reflects our need for accessibility, no matter our age or physical condition. At every stage of life from birth onward, we continually approach doorways to new experiences and opportunities and must be able to open those portals to have access to what is on the other side.
Some issues of access are simple and easily solvable, such as placing several thick telephone books (remember those?) on a dining room chair so a small 1950s me could reach my plate of food. Even today, a still short, much older me benefits from setting my otherwise dangling feet on a provided foot rest attached to a bus or train seat in front of me.
But most accessibility issues –– especially for older adults –– are far more complex, serious, and challenging to resolve because, unlike those involving children, they address the needs of people who would otherwise be fully autonomous and responsible for their actions were it not for the barriers that society places in their way. These issues fall under three categories: products/services, opportunities, and relationships. Let’s consider each one:
Access to products and services is usually determined by the physical limitations we may develop as we age. Our sight, hearing, balance, endurance, or flexibility may become more impaired. These pose difficulties when some of us try to do such things as read small print, faint-typeface online screen texts, and subtitles that flash by quickly on TVs and videos; listen to unclear public address systems or try to have conversations in noisy restaurants; wend our way on unevenly paved sidewalks and cross streets within 10 seconds before the WALK signs change; and trek for long distances in places that have no public benches on which to rest. Furthermore, some of us older adults are challenged within our own homes when bottle tops, milk cartons, and round doorknobs become harder to manipulate by arthritic hands, and stairs and bathtubs get harder to climb or climb over.
As for opportunities, access to them is blocked for us when our résumés are passed over, we can’t get job interviews, and we’re pressured to retire from the workplace, even though we still have ideas and skills to share; we’re ignored as potential subjects in medical clinical trials as biological outliers and denied costly treatments for our conditions because of low Medicare reimbursement rates; we’re considered too old and therefore unappealing to play leading roles in movies and TV series and ignored in marketing campaigns promoting high-tech products, the assumption being that we are reluctant or unable to use them. The list goes on.
But perhaps the most insidious form of inaccessibility arises when we are blocked from having relationships that affirm our dignity as people living into our later years. I’m talking about the isolation that results from the denial of access to those products/services (the things we want and need) and opportunities (the things we want or need to do).
For example, it happens when well-meaning but compassionately ageist staff of long-term-care communities prevent memory-care and/or assisted living residents from mingling with independent living residents in the dining room and during events. Access to relationships is also denied when others assume that older adults have little interest or competence in participating in activities that can benefit others.
A case in point: I once had an appointment with the activities director of an independent living community to discuss presenting educational programs for the residents. Although I arrived on time, the woman was harried and stressed, being on a deadline to put together the monthly community newsletter, which involved writing brief articles, including profiles of the newest residents, as well as taking photos of some of the events for that month.
I wondered why she was doing all of this alone, and moreover, why the residents themselves weren’t involved in creating the newsletter. Surely, I said to her, there must be folks who enjoy writing who could produce those articles and resident profiles, as well as someone who might enjoy being the community’s photographer. What she said next absolutely stunned me:
“I never thought of that. Come to think of it, two of our residents are former English teachers, and a retired Life magazine photographer lives here, too!”
Granted, those people may have had no desire to work on the newsletter, but not even offering them the chance for such involvement and interaction is a perfect example of the denial of access.
By thinking too narrowly and in stereotypical ways about older adults, seeing us as homogenous members of an amorphous group instead of perceiving us as individuals and addressing our situations on a case-by-case basis, it’s akin to assuming that young Omar had a behavior problem (why else would he have been so hyperactive and disruptive?) instead of looking deeper.
It’s only by imagining and designing for the needs and desires of individuals as individuals and incorporating as many of those options as possible that true universal accessibility is accomplished. WALK signs that allow enough time for elders to cross streets also allow enough time for a parent pushing a baby stroller while holding the hand of a young child; a young injured athlete using crutches; and two teachers leading a class of young elementary students to get to the other side. Building doors that have handles instead of round knobs also allow people carrying two full bags of groceries to use their elbow to gain entry.
Accessibility involves more than universal design for all. It involves universal acceptance of all.
The paradox it presents is something we should all contemplate. To truly empower us as we age, we need to be able to open whatever doors to new experiences we encounter. By providing us older adults with greater access to society, society gets greater access to us –– our talents, skills, ideas, perceptions, experience, and acquired wisdom.
What culture would want to close its portals to all of that?