September 27, 2005

Disability Meets The Boom

by Frank Bowe

photo of man, woman These are hard times for disability advocates. The nation, and most states, have other priorities. Hurricanes Rita and Katrina have dominated the news and our attention in recent weeks. Even without those urgent concerns, Washington, DC, has federal budget deficits in the hundreds of billions of dollars. This translates into cuts in programs affecting people with disabilities. It also means that there is almost no interest in expanding services -- for anyone. On other fronts, our leaders are preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress is bitterly divided by partisan rancor. If anything positive is going on for people with disabilities in Washington, DC, it's news to me.

In the states, meanwhile, rising costs of public pensions for state workers, of Medicaid, and, in many areas, of supporting the huge influx of undocumented persons are similarly crowding out any sparks of interest in disability services and rights. Helping the many people who were displaced by Rita and/or Katrina, as urgent and needed as it is, has a similar effect.

What's an advocate to do? These are large societal forces. They seem to be too big for our small movement to fight. Not surprisingly, many advocates are lying low. Some are busy raising funds, preparing for the day when we can once again make ourselves heard. Others are rediscovering long-neglected personal needs and interests.

It's my belief that they haven't noticed that there's something not just big, but humongous, going on underneath the surface. The disability community is about to become a lot more central in American life.

The Graying of Baby Boomers
Advocates know, but may not realize the significance of, this fact: the 76 million-member baby boom generation is rapidly aging. This year the leading edge turns 59. In just a few years, millions will reach retirement age. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of people aged 65-84 will go up 39 percent (by 13 million people). By 2010, there will be 34 million persons 65-84; ten years later, in 2020, there will be 47 million.

So what, you say? Bear with me. In what follows, I am drawing upon data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). I'll cite the sources later. First, the numbers:

As people get into their 60s and 70s, they become increasingly likely to develop heath conditions. Take hearing. There was a Newsweek cover story this summer (the cover, no less!) about this. In the U.S. today, about 31 million people report some level of "trouble" with their hearing. That's 15 percent of all Americans. Now, because hearing loss is most frequent among older persons, this group is set to explode. Today, among persons aged 65-74, 30 percent have a hearing loss. Of those 75 years of age or older, 46 percent have a hearing impairment.

What is happening is that the number of people in these age ranges is surging, simply because the 76 million baby boom generation is beginning to move through those age spans. By 2020, if those percentages hold (which they very likely will), there will be 40 percent more persons with hearing impairments in these age groups. It's simple math.

The same thing is occurring with respect to vision impairments. Today, 19 million Americans of all ages report "trouble" with their sight. That's 9 percent of the population. Among those aged 65-74, though, the proportion jumps to 15 percent. Of those 75 years of age or older, 21 percent have a vision loss. By 2020, you will see 40 percent more in each age range having impairments of vision.

Or take mobility. Today, 14 percent of American adults report "moderate mobility difficulty". A total of 28 million of us have physical conditions of one kind or another. That's about one in every ten. Of them, 13 million Americans find it very difficult or impossible to walk a quarter mile. That's 6 percent of the population. Yet again, as the saying has it ("The legs are first to go"), these numbers rise as people age.

The sources for all this: "Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Adults, National Health Interview Survey, 2002" (on the current numbers) -- available online as a PDF file -- and "Projections (2010-2020)" at the Census Bureau's website.

The fact that over the next several years tens of millions of older Americans will begin to have sensory and/or physical conditions is significant for a number of reasons. While not a lot will actually have disabilities, they will experience limitations. Accessibility issues will be, for these people, no longer "someone else's problems" but rather "our concern". Suddenly, they will have a personal interest in many of the same things we do.

And it's well-known that seniors vote at a much higher rate than do people who are younger.

It all adds up to a steadily growing presence.

To appreciate the power of this presence, think back to the history of the baby boom generation. In the 1950s, these people -- all by themselves -- created what we later learned to recognize as the market for children's products. It started with Davy Crocket coonskin caps, and then went on to the Mouseketeeers, and hula hoops. Later, when the boomers became teens and young adults, they gave us rock-n-roll, Woodstock, and the anti-war movement protesting American involvement in Vietnam. This same generation went on to change the norms of the workplace, as tens of millions of women entered the work force. Those are the kinds of social upheavals that occur when you have a "pig in a python" 76-million-strong cohort moving through different age spans.

What's different now is that, for the first time, this huge social force is about to boost the disability movement. Our challenge is to recognize their emerging needs and interests, and to align those with ours.

Telling the Story
With numbers this large, the story changes. Especially with respect to hearing, vision, and mobility, issues of accessibility become general, rather than special, interests.

Our job is going to be to convince the mass media of this. The statistics above will help. Then, working with editors and reporters, we need to point out the needs those of us with disabilities share with baby boomers who have health conditions that fall short of being disabilities. Writers among us need to be submitting stories to mass media outlets, tolerating as we do the inevitable rejection slips. Our goal: as boomers watch television, surf the Web, read newspapers and magazines, listen to the radio, they are made aware of those shared concerns.

Think, for example, about cell phones. An astonishing 160 million Americans now use wireless phones every day. The phones are so small already that older people have difficulty with the controls and even with the buttons. Much easier is to just say the number and have the phone dial it. This feature is available on a couple of cell phones. We need to make ita regular feature. Or think about GPS. Today, if you want global positioning satellite location service on your cell phone, it's only available on a few models, and then at some $20 extra a month. It should be standard and free. Many people with disabilities would be much safer if their 9-1-1 calls automatically told dispatchers where they were.

Medicare's durable medical equipment policies and Medicaid's personal care attendant policies are about to affect millions more people. This means that our complaints are going to be echoed by a lot more people -- and finally get policy makers' attention -- if and only if aging baby boomers become aware of our issues and align themselves with us to advocate for change. Same with MiCASSA. Boomers with health-care needs will want to continue living in the community, and if made aware of federal and state Medicaid bias in favor of institutional care, will join us in protesting it.

Yeah, but....
Won't boomers resist identifying with people having life-long disabilities? Yes, many will.

We can anticipate that most will resist acknowledging their new limitations of activity, hearing, and speech. As my parents and in-laws began losing their hearing, their first reaction was not to identify with me. They insisted, for long periods of time, that they were not in fact losing their hearing. Rather, they thought the rest of us were whispering or mumbling. Even after they reluctantly acknowledged impairment of hearing, they still held back from turning on TV captions. It took time.

Baby boomers who begin to sustain limitations of vision and mobility, too, will not immediately begin to identify with "the blind" and "wheelchair users". We need to be patient and understanding. After all, these people have five or six or seven decades of life history during which they were "temporarily able bodied" -- understandably, their self-concept is one of a person who does not have a disability.

This doesn't bother me. I don't think we actually need to alter their sense of self. Rather, the focus, I think, should be on the issues. We need to get them to buy into the idea that accessibility in all its many variations is now a practical and important issue for them. Even if they insist "I'm not disabled!" they can still say "This is wrong!" or "This is dumb!" or "This is unnecessary" or words to that effect as they experience the many, often small, ways in which society places barriers in their paths.

That is, we need to get them to care about, talk about, and act about the same issues we do. Two things happen when they do. First, politics change. Elected officials everywhere will pick up on the fact that their constituents care a lot more about hearing, vision and mobility than they once did. Second, the marketplace changes. Companies that make consumer products, transportation systems, buildings, and arenas, and the designers and architects they hire will become a lot more interested in the A117.1 accessibility standards (for buildings), W3C/WAI guidelines (for Web sites and pages), and other specifications. All of this eventually leads to a higher quality of life for Americans with disabilities -- all without boomers changing their self-concepts.

Strange Bedfellows?
A related need: Forging alliances with senior groups and using mass media to create large communities of interest.

I'm partial to the Gray Panthers myself, but AARP has recently shown a lot more interest than it used to in issues that matter to us. It also means bringing our older siblings and parents with us to City Hall, to visibly show that we are making common cause.

The baby boom generation is so humongous that reaching out one-on-one, or retail, won't suffice. We need mass-market, or wholesale, outreach. For Web-based outlets like The Rag, this reaching out means registering with Google, Yahoo! and other search engines. It even means purchasing paid advertising at those search sites. We are trying to connect to potential brothers and sisters who are just awakening to the fact that they have interests in common with ours.

For the deaf, it means linking up more with the hard of hearing. The National Association of the Deaf is already doing this. For the blind, similarly, it means reaching out much more to people who have low vision. We need to make the less-severe versions of our disabilities prominent in the American mind. That's where the numbers will be.

And, as the 2006 midterm election season gets underway, it means becoming active in general, and not just special, interest political events. It's a matter of thinking a bit differently, then acting differently. Advocates should begin citing a new mantra: "There are tens of millions of aging boomers. In time, the size of our interest group will double, and then double again." We need to begin acting like it.

Will all this be worth it? I certainly think so. As a member of the baby boom generation myself, I have a lifetime of experience telling me that the 76 million baby boomers have changed society at every turn since the late 1940s. They will change it again, this time carrying us along.

Be sure to read Frank Bowe's follow-up article, The Time to Rise Will Come Again.

Frank Bowe, often called "The Father of Section 504" and "An Advocate's Advocate," has a 40-year history of activism. He led the 1977 nationwide protest that gave us section 504, worked with Justin Dart and others on ADA, and helped to make TV captioning available everywhere. A professor at Long Island's Hofstra University, his newest book is Making Inclusion Work (Prentice Hall, 2005).

Posted on September 27, 2005

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