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Media design for an aging workforce.


As one hundred million-plus Baby Boomers reach middle and senior age, so follows the American workforce. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that the number of workers over 45 years of age will shift from the current level of 30% of the workforce to 38% by the year 2005. With this shift, the number of workers with some degree of disability (visual, aural, cognitive, motor, and/or tactile) will undoubtedly rise.

Disability does not mean, however, that these people are incapable of working. In fact, this pool of experienced workers is among the most productive and capable. To retain and maintain this pool of valuable workers, businesses may be faced with providing special accommodations to disabled workers - accommodations that afford "access" to the workplace. What businesses may not realize is that accommodation pertains to both physical access to the workplace and intellectual access - corporate communication and information systems must be made accessible to all qualified employees.

Because the pocketbook, and not conscience, motivates corporate America, the movement toward accommodating disabled workers is spurred primarily by anti-discrimination legislation, including the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the newly mandated Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Businesses may be surprised to learn, however, that most accommodations (approximately 75%) cost less than $500 dollars; and many have no cost at all. Furthermore, the return on accommodation investments is high and includes retention of valuable employees, increased productivity for the accommodated employee, and reduction of litigation based on discrimination.

The new mandate and changing corporate mindset to accommodate aging and disabled workers creates unique challenges and opportunities for technical communicators. As employers become familiar and comfortable with the ADA mandates and increasingly challenged by aging employees to meet their unique needs, the demand for communicators capable of reworking, rewriting, and reinventing intellectual materials and systems will expand dramatically.


Because media design for the aging and disabled workforce is a relatively new concept, it is not widely understood, has generated little recognition or enthusiasm, and has met with apathy and resistance.

To vigorously sell or defend the concept of accessible information, technical communicators must become experts in accessibility, media design, alternate media, new technology, and communications systems. Creativity is required. In addition, a complete understanding of different handicaps - kinds and degrees of impairment, and correlating limitations and capability - is essential. Lacking any piece of the described knowledge limits the communicator's ability to understand the need, synthesize the options, and create/sell a workable solution.

For example, approximately twenty-one million people, or 1 in 10, report that hearing is their primary functional limitation - yet, only 1 in 750 is profoundly deaf (Danek, Seay, and Collier 1989). This fact certainly has implications for communicators planning options for aurally presented materials, especially when trying to accommodate the maximum number of employees while minimizing costs.

Visually impaired people are equally diverse in ability/disability and require similar consideration. Communicators should realize that the majority of visually impaired workers are not totally blind and cannot read Braille. An aging population is far more likely to present problems that relate to deteriorating sight rather than to total blindness.

Seventy-six million Americans are reaching the age (40 through 50) at which vision begins to decline (Patlak 1990, p.22) - and most of these people will continue to work for another 25 years. Therefore, business communicators will be faced with the challenge of accommodating a seventy-six million strong and growing pool of workers who have some degree of sight disability. As a result, it is just as important that communication experts know that glossy paper creates glare, that 11-point type is too small to be read comfortably, and that computer screens are not compatible with bifocal lenses as it is to know a resource for Braille transcription.

How many communicators know or consider cognitive, motor, and tactile skills and disabilities to be relevant to communication design? Stroke, head trauma, and degenerative disease often strike aging workers and create permanent disability. If they are otherwise healthy, these workers often return to work despite residual disabilities.

Long-term effects of stroke, head trauma, and degenerative disease often show up in cognitive function - memory loss or decreased motor control. Providing media enhancements as simple as documents with large type, repetitive or isolated instruction, audio instruction, or color-coded documentation can allow these workers to function successfully.


Because the ADA has just been mandated, technical communicators currently have the luxury of educating themselves in the planning and preparation of "accessible" information materials.

However, as corporate America becomes more savvy, more handicapped workers enter the workplace, and aging workers hold onto their positions, communicators will be forced to rework, rewrite, and reinvent the communication tools and systems of the workplace.

Communicators who wish to take advantage of the coming opportunity in this field must educate themselves now and acquire the skills necessary to create materials for the coming wave of employers seeking versatile communication materials.

Education includes knowledge of types of disabilities and understanding of the capabilities of disabled persons. Learning theory also helps communicators understand how information is accessed and synthesized and suggests how to develop communication materials that are accessible to all people.

Technical writers and graphic artists with very focused skill sets may need to develop skills in desktop publishing, audio and video production, online documentation, distance learning, and multimedia.

Given corporate ignorance and resistance, it becomes obvious that part of the technical communicator's job will be educating, guiding, and thinking creatively to address corporate clients' needs, concerns, and defense mechanisms. Communicators must, therefore, learn the law and become comfortable with its parameters - and have the ability to sell the idea to corporate decision makers.

The education and skill set needed to produce media for an aging and disabled audience seem enormous, but change is coming whether technical communicators are ready or not. Fortunately, the education and information that technical communicators need to develop accessible information can be developed gradually over a period of time through reading, continuing education, and communicating with other communication professionals. Because these skills are applicable in any corporate environment, employers may be willing to support employees who are willing to learn.


Since its inception in 1983, the Job Accommodation Network (University of West Virginia) has handled 77,000 cases from callers trying to accommodate disabled workers. Of these calls, 33,000 have been received since Title I of the ADA went into effect in July 1990 (Hendricks, Dowler, and Judy 1994). According to the JAN U.S. Annual Report, during Grant Year 92/92 (1993) the number of requests for fiscal year 1993, alone, were 38,382.

Calls related to vision, hearing, speech, touch, auditory/visual discrimination, organizational/task seeking, reading, concentrating, spelling/writing, stroke, learning disabilities, and Attention Deficit Disorder - communication-related areas - comprised approximately one-third of all inquiries. For technical communicators who have specialized knowledge and skill, these statistics signal opportunity. Employers are searching for help in accommodating aging and disabled employees.

Technical communication experts will find great opportunity in developing and redeveloping accessible communication materials and systems. However, they can seize this opportunity only if they understand employer perspectives and differences in employee needs by disability and degree well enough to synthesize viable and affordable communication options. Communicators must then effectively use their knowledge to educate, inform, and comfort corporate decision makers.


Pressured by the need to retain experienced and valued employees, the expanded longevity and productivity of aging workers, the ever-increasing size of the 45+ workforce, and anti-discriminatory legislation (particularly the ADA), businesses will need to rework, rewrite, and reinvent corporate communications materials and systems with an emphasis on accessibility. Accordingly, the demand for and on technical communicators will increase.

Highly and diversely skilled communicators who have knowledge of and sensitivity to the unique needs of aging and disabled workers will be on the forefront of this innovation. Because corporate America is currently unfamiliar and uncomfortable with accommodating disabled workers, technical communicators must understand that educating employers as to the laws, the options, and the possibilities available will be part of the media design process.

Leadership in this new area of media design will open great opportunity for prepared technical communication experts. Expertise in this field will open new opportunity for communicators riding this first wave of innovation. Moreover, regardless of whether communicators choose to prepare themselves, the ability to plan and create multisense accessible documentation will become increasingly important.


Danek, M., P. Seay, and M. Collier. 1989. "Supported employment and deaf people: Current practices and emerging issues." Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling 20: 34-43.

Hendricks, Deborah J., Denetta L. Dowler, and Barbara T. Judy. 1994. "Real-life issues in job accommodation: Employers' and employees' perspectives." Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation 4, no. 3: 174-182.

Patlak, Margie. 1990. "Pursuing 20/20 at 40+." FDA Consumer 4, no. 2: 22-26.
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Title Annotation:Symposium Part VI
Author:Hill, O.L.
Publication:Technical Communication
Date:Nov 1, 1995
Previous Article:Preparing new learners to meet new literacies.
Next Article:Future direction for continuing education in technical communication.

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