Making Computer Use Easier for Elders

By Jane Vincent, Center for Accessible Technology

  1. Adjust text size
  2. Adjust color contrast
  3. Introduce use of keyboard shortcuts
  4. Use large-print keyboards with white text on a black background
  5. Provide good lighting in the computer environment
  6. Use "puffy paint" to make keys easier to locate
  7. Provide a way to anchor keyboards
  8. Offer trackballs as an alternative to standard mice
  9. Design websites with elders in mind
  10. Don't make assumptions about user capabilities

1. Adjust text size.

Almost all elders benefit from at least a slight increase in text size. Control panel options in Windows, ease of access center and the universal access for Mac allow the size of many system elements, such as dialog boxes and title bars, to be adjusted. Current versions of both Windows and Mac systems have simple magnification capabilities.

In addition, "zoom" capabilities are built into many standard applications, such as Microsoft Office programs and most browsers. Larger monitors, particularly the LCD monitors that are wider than they are tall, can help users make the most of enlarged text. LCD monitors have the added benefit of resisting glare, which becomes a more significant problem as individuals age.

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2. Adjust color contrast.

With age, our ability to distinguish between certain color pairs diminishes, especially between white/yellow and blue/blue-gray. The same Windows control panel options that allow text size to be adjusted also permit users to specify preferences for both text and background colors. Browsers also have settings that allow users to make settings that affect colors on some (but not all) websites.

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3. Introduce use of keyboard shortcuts.

With age, mousing speed and precision generally decrease. Use of a few common keyboard shortcuts (such as pressing ALT to move the cursor up to the menu bar and then using arrow keys to navigate the menus) can reduce frustration without requiring significant memorization.

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4. Use large-print keyboards with white text on a black background.

As we get older, our pupils take in less light - a 90% reduction between age 20 and age 80. This means that white-on-black keyboards are often easier to see. Some keyboards already come with large print keys (black-on-white and black-on-gold are other available color

combinations), or large print labels with adhesive backing can be purchased from a variety of sources and placed on standard keyboards.

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5. Provide good lighting in the computer environment.

Natural lighting is preferable to artificial lighting; make sure that the monitor is perpendicular to the light source to reduce glare. If overhead fluorescents are the only options in the room, consider investing in inexpensive gooseneck lamps so that users can focus lighting on the keyboard, the typing stand, or whatever they are viewing.

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6. Use "puffy paint" to make keys easier to locate.

Because tactile sensitivity decreases with age, older touch-typists may have more difficulty locating the small nubs on the F and J keys. Puffy paint, also called fabric or 3D paint, is available in most craft stores and can be dotted on any key to provide a larger tactile guide. It can also be used to help orient computer neophytes to the keyboard; for example, drawing a large "T" on the Tab key using red-orange paint provides both a tactile and visual cue.

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7. Provide a way to anchor keyboards.

Many older computer users will press harder than necessary to activate keys, either because of reduced hand strength or simply because they may be used to the pressure needed to activate typewriter keys. This can be ameliorated by use of a few strips of Velcro to anchor the keyboard securely but still allow it to be moved when desired. Non-slip matting, which is available in most hardware stores or stores such as Target, is another option; it holds the keyboard to the table without requiring any type of permanent installation.

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8. Offer trackballs as an alternative to standard mice.

New computer users may find trackballs more intuitive than standard mice. In addition, trackballs omit the need for extensive arm movements. Finally, many elders have difficulty keeping the standard mouse still while they click; because trackballs usually requires the user to take their hand off the ball to press a button, accidental cursor movement is less frequent.

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9. Design websites with elders in mind.

In addition to following standard guidelines for website accessibility, designers of sites that will be used by elders should avoid making text smaller than 12 points. The ability to pick out information within a visual field also decreases with age, so avoid designing pages that cram a large number of links into a small space.

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10. Don't make assumptions about user capabilities.

Many current seniors are savvy computer users, and Boomers are already representing the first generation to age with years of computer experience. The ability to learn doesn’t disappear with age; instead, learning styles change. Large-print cheat sheets and using familiar metaphors to explain computer functions (e.g., showing users that computers have a volume control, just like a TV) can be helpful training tools.

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