Is Disability an Outdated Term in an Aging World?

Ray Grott PhotoWe all know that aging is an important topic these days, as was underscored at our recent conference’s plenary session on “Assistive Technology in a Global Community.” Representatives from the World Health Organization and RESNA’s sister organizations in Europe (AAATE) and South Korea (RESKO) all spoke about the aging of the world-wide population and the related challenges and opportunities for assistive technology professionals.
Assistive technology is generally defined as items and services “used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities." Along these same lines, RESNA is “dedicated to promoting the health and well-being of people with disabilities through increasing access to technology solutions.” That’s all well and good, until you stop to consider that most people who are older or “aging” and who are experiencing functional limitations do not consider themselves as having a disability, even when their need for assistance becomes significant. Likewise, many domestic and international groups and organizations maintain a distinction between the aging and disability sectors. At the same time, the AT needs of the elderly is an increasingly common theme for conferences, discussion groups, and research initiatives; and they are surely on the priority list of product developers and service organizations. Would we be more inclusive by always referring to aging as well as disability?
Or why not, as some have suggested, drop the reference to “disability” within RESNA and just use a more inclusive term, such as “functional limitations?” Although this or a similar term may be technically accurate, what would it mean for people who identify themselves as disabled? I posed this question to Jessica Lehman, Executive Director of San Francisco’s Senior and Disability Action, a group that mobilizes and educates seniors and people with disabilities to fight for individual rights and social justice. Her response was that people with disabilities have worked hard to establish their identity as a social grouping and for the acknowledgement of their particular needs, and many would not want to risk losing that by adopting a broader and more generic label. She felt that the technology needs of older folks and those with disabilities can be addressed and advocated for, without merging their identities. A good friend and disability consultant agreed and said, “Both groups are looked down on and discriminated against in our culture, which can bring them together, but our experiences remain very different.” 
In the U.S., the federal Administration for Community Living (ACL), which includes both the Administration on Aging and the Administration on Disabilities, has recently been given responsibility for the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), along with oversight of the State Grants for Assistive Technology (through the Tech Act). Many hope that this broader umbrella will bridge funding silos and lead to a greater understanding of the role that rehabilitation engineering and AT can play in promoting the health and well-being of seniors, without undercutting the needs of people with clearly defined disabilities.
With all that in mind, my questions and challenges to RESNA members are:
  1. Should we adopt new language and speak about “people with disabilities and those who are aging” when referring to the design, use, and funding of AT?
  2. Should we go broader and speak about “people with functional limitations?”  
  3. Should we be focusing more as an organization on the aging population?
  4. If so, what would that look like? 
Meanwhile, Happy 25th anniversary to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Happy 50th anniversary to the Older Americans Act (OAA)!
Ray Grott, MA, ATP, RET
August 5, 2015


Submitted by Dr. Gabor lanto... (not verified) on

Disability has evolved into a legal term with all its associated psychosocial/financial/legal ramifications.
"Functional impairment" would provide much more objective medical criteria, and would be more useful
for technical and assisitive purposes.

Submitted by Allen Hoffman, ... (not verified) on

As I emphasize to my students, "All of us, if we live long enough, will acquire a disability and the alternative is not that attractive". I would suggest changing the wording in item 1 to " people with disabilities including those who are aging". Furthermore as an inclusive organization RESNA should be reaching out to organizations that provide services to those who are aging. The word disability is well understood by the general population, I believe that changing the word to "functional limitations" will lead to a lesser understanding of our mission within the general population.

"functional limitations" is too clinical a term. Everyone is always aging, so that's not such a good term. You could say "the aged" or "elderly and disabled persons" or something like that. Agree that we should not fold the two groups together under one term.

Submitted by Mark Schmitt (not verified) on

As a disabled person for over 30 years, I struggle with the hype that we need a more correct term to describe us. I have had this discussion with fellow disabled friends and it turns into a discussion of the absurd, we have come up with silly descriptions including "Mobility Challenged" or "Functionally Unable" or "Differently Able". We find it funny that these discussions are rarely started by disabled persons. "Disability" is not a derogatory term. It is simply a description of a person and/or their condition. Isn't it a bit better than invalid or crippled?

Submitted by Richard Carroll (not verified) on

Agree! A disability is a disability regardless of whether its origin is congenital, developmental, accidental or aging. Elderly people may become disabled, i.e., experience limited function, sometimes as the result of accidents that have nothing to do with being elderly and sometimes due to bodily and cognitive changes that accompany the aging process. Our tendency to identify and classify disability differently based on time-of-onset is artificial. In the end it's still a disability and calling it such is appropriate, accurate and useful.

Submitted by Alexandra Enders (not verified) on

Why not describe people with access and functional needs, instead of functional limitations. Access and functional needs language is getting more and more traction in emergency management (its officially in several policies, statutes, training packages etc.)

See the 2007 paper June Kailes and I wrote, “Moving beyond Special Needs” As the demographics section of the paper shows, AFN broadly includes older individuals. I think a lot of folks who have access and functional needs could benefit from the types of technology Resna folks are involved with. Not all older people, whether or not they identify with a disability label,, have access and functional needs, but those that do often need technology similar to young people.with disabilities.

Why limit useful technology approaches to just people's limitations, special needs, and those with disability labels?

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