Older Americans are more likely to have a disability, but healthcare websites shut them out

As people age, health declines in a number of ways, causing disabilities like impaired vision, hearing loss, cognitive decline, and loss of muscle strength. Chronic illnesses like arthritis, diabetes, and heart failure are also far more common among those aged over 65. Eighty percent of the over-65s live with one chronic condition, and 50% have two.

According to a recent Pew report, 49.8% of Americans aged over 75, and 25.4% of those aged 65-74, live with a disability. This stands in contrast to just 6% of 18-34-year-olds, and 13% of 35-64-year-olds.

This inevitable decline in health and ability makes them more likely to need medical assistance and advice on a regular basis. Distance healthcare is a blessing for elderly Americans, who find it difficult to travel to even a nearby medical center to pick up a repeat prescription or get initial advice about their recent symptoms. Most of their interactions with physicians, pharmacists, insurance, physical therapists, and healthcare providers in general occur online.

However, just when people are the most reliant on healthcare sites, health apps, and patient portals, those very tools shut them out. Non-accessible websites are a growing issue for the 61 million Americans who live with a disability of some kind. An AFB study discovered that not one healthcare website is fully accessible for blind users.

Recent ADA lawsuits, like the famous Domino’s Pizza accessibility case, have emphasized that every business is legally obligated to make their website accessible to users with disabilities according to WCAG guidelines. However, as many as 98% of all websites still fail to offer accessible menus.

Healthcare websites are failing elderly Americans, just when they need them the most.


Major pain points of healthcare websites for elderly users

A quick visit to any healthcare website or patient portal throws up a number of obstacles for elderly users. Here are a few examples:

  • Buttons that are so small, it’s hard for weak hands to aim the cursor in the right place.
  • Menus that can only be navigated by mouse, which is painful for anyone with arthritis and impossible for those with motor disabilities.
  • Poor contrast, texts in pale colors, and fonts that are small or cramped, making it next to impossible for the visually-impaired to read them.
  • Hyperlinked text that isn’t clearly marked, making it hard for elderly users to work out where to click.
  • Screens which can’t be magnified for weak and tired eyes, because text and menu options get pushed off the display.
  • Confusing wording, web structure, and navigation that leaves anyone with cognitive decline bewildered and lost.
  • Popups which cover the entire screen, without showing an easy way to close them.

That’s without even mentioning websites that aren’t compatible with screen readers used by the blind, and don’t support keyboard-only navigation. All of these websites fail to meet WCAG guidelines on any level, let alone level AA which ADA requires. Most virtual healthcare tools, including those aimed at the elderly, remain inaccessible to older Americans.


The serious impact of non-accessible healthcare sites

You might think that anyone who can’t use a healthcare site could use some other way to access healthcare, like calling the medical center, asking someone else to help them find information, or coming in person for appointments.

Although that’s true in theory, in reality the lack of virtual healthcare services affects the elderly in a number of ways:

  • If you can’t book an appointment online, you’ll have to wait for opening hours to call up and book one. Chances are good that by that point, your preferred doctor is booked up, or the only appointments left are at inconvenient times.
  • You can’t access your medical records alone, leaving you dependent on carers or family members to access them with you or on your behalf. This robs you of privacy and autonomy.
  • You can’t research your condition, diagnosis, and treatment options in your own time, leaving you forced to make decisions in the doctor’s office after an explanation that you might not have fully understood.
  • You can’t use electronic diagnostic services, or access health portals that help you to self-diagnose issues like a new rash or a hacking cough. Instead, you travel to a clinic or hospital, when you’d do better to stay in bed and avoid germ-ridden places like a doctor’s waiting room.
  • You can’t order repeat prescriptions online, increasing the risk that you’ll run out of vital medication.


Looking on the bright side: How accessible websites help everyone

Fortunately, the tide is turning. WCAG guidelines detail what needs to be done to make websites fully accessible to all users. ADA title III provides the teeth for enforcing web accessibility on those who might be reluctant to apply it. And healthcare providers like VIPAmerica, LB Homes and others are embracing accessible web design, creating websites and portals that can be used easily by their target audience of elderly Americans.


LB Homes’ web accessibility interface


Accessible design benefits the entire population, not only those with disabilities. Americans are gradually getting older. By 2035, it’s expected that more Americans will be aged over 65 than under 18. That means that each of us will need accessible websites to reach healthcare services.

Opening up online healthcare services for the elderly eases the strain on the entire system. Older individuals and those with disabilities use up fewer resources and occupy less doctor time overall when they can access faster online diagnostic and repeat prescription services. With all the information they need about their symptoms at their fingertips, they can make informed decisions about when to go to the ER or book a doctor’s appointment.

People can be temporarily disabled and need accessible websites for short periods at any age. This includes the athlete who broke their wrist and can’t use a mouse; someone with a scratched eye who has an eyepatch on; anyone who is panicking and/or in serious pain, and finding it hard to calm down enough to navigate the healthcare site. It even includes the businessman who’s using their iPad on a jerky train.


Healthcare websites need to stop overlooking elderly users

In today’s culture of accessibility and open doors, it’s not acceptable for healthcare websites to shut out elderly users who make up the majority of their consumer base. The new tide of accessible websites helps individuals with disabilities, those in older age, and all of us to access vital healthcare services, and keeps the healthcare system running smoothly.