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Accessibility for the Baby Boomer Generation

Is a wave of aging Canadians putting disability-friendly products in demand? Could the aching hips, failing eyesight and arthritic hands of the baby-boom generation be a boon for people with long-standing disabilities?

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This year the leading edge of boomers turns 65. And as this loud-and-proud generation insists on working, shopping, travelling and playing like everyone else, the marketplace is accommodating them, offering products and services that take into account their aging bodies.

Pop into your local grocery store, and you can pick out packages designed for people without much hand dexterity. At the pharmacy, you’ll find funky canes and easy-open pill bottles. It’s also a simple matter to source out stylish lever door handles, easy-grip kitchen utensils, and household mops that can be used without bending.

Last month, Toronto welcomed the province’s first retail store to sell fashionable clothing specifically designed for people sitting in wheelchairs.

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Accessibility: A New Trend

The trend is making a difference for people like Glenn Barnes. Barnes was abruptly introduced to the world of disability almost two decades ago, when he became paralyzed in a 1992 diving accident.

Like the other folks he met in rehab, Barnes now had to learn to adapt to a society that was still largely shutting out people with disabilities. At the time, wheelchair access to public buildings was hit and miss. And what about gadgets that made life a little easier if you happened to have trouble using your hands or walking? Good luck with that. “They were probably not impossible to find, but they weren’t mainstream,” says Barnes, now 42 and living in Mississauga, Ontario.

Twenty years ago, any kind of utensil, personal care item or piece of clothing designed for use by people with disabilities had to be purchased through a healthcare supplier or ordered online – if it existed at all. The limited marketplace for these specialty products meant you were often forced to cough up extra cash and shipping charges.

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The Shift in Shopping

Today, many of the same products people with disabilities once special-ordered from expensive catalogues are now stocking the shelves of local stores. They’re accessible – and affordable.

Barnes first learned to use Dragon Dictate, a voice-activated computer program, on a complex system in a technology centre for people with disabilities. “It was almost two desks full of computers and speakers and big, huge towers, and the guy said, ‘You have to be very careful, this is 20 thousand dollars’ worth of equipment,” Barnes recalls. Now anyone can buy Dragon Dictate at an office store for under 200 bucks.

Have trouble reading small print? Your laptop or e-reader will enlarge the screen font size at the touch of a button. Have difficulty hearing the TV sportscaster? Closed captioning is already installed on most new televisions.

Drivers with disabilities used to spend $10,000 to adapt a minivan with an automatically opening side door or back hatch. Now these features come standard on many minivan models.

“It’s a big change,” says Barnes. “I think it really does speak back to people seeing where the marketplace is going and what the need is going to be.”

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Baby Boomers Demand Accessibility

Canada’s population of people with disabilities has been steadily increasing, from 12.4% of the population in 2001 to 14.3% in 2006. The rise is expected to continue to increase as baby boomers, now in their late 40s to mid-60s, feel the effects of middle age and beyond. They’re experiencing mobility, dexterity and sensory issues. Yet this is a generation of clamouring consumers who are unlikely to let a bum knee slow them down.

“I’m a very busy person,” says 58-year-old Candas Jane Dorsey in Edmonton, where she works as a writer and teacher, looks after her elderly mother, takes art classes, sings in a choir and volunteers in her community.

Dorsey deals with pain and some difficulty bending, walking and grasping because of her osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. But she says, “I’m not interested in taking these diagnoses as an excuse to just stop doing what I’m doing. It’s a matter of simply taking it into account, making sure that I can continue to have a life.”

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Peddling the Products

Lucky for Dorsey, the manufacturers know she’s out there. “Everything I’ve used to adapt as I age has been commercially available,” she says. She’s bought long-handled gardening tools to reach her plants. She’s set a larger font size on her Blackberry.

And Dorsey loves her stylish yet sensible footwear. Regular shoes caused her pain and fatigue, so she found a funky line of supportive footwear. “I’m a shoe queen. These are the answer for people who are not ready for the old-fashioned type of orthopedic shoe.”

Is there a down side for people who’ve had disabilities much of their lives, and are finally finding it easier to source out products designed for their needs? The onslaught of seniors does mean, for instance, increased competition for those hard-to-find wheelchair parking spaces. But if it also means access has gone vogue, perhaps it’s worth it.

“This is the kind of shift that people won’t recognize very closely, unless they’re looking,” says Barnes. For people who’ve been looking for decades, the baby-boom generation may be just the impetus they’ve needed.

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Where to Turn for Help

Looking for that perfect gadget to make life a little easier? Try these suppliers for starters:

Shoppers Home Health Care

Good Grips by Oxo

Lee Valley Tools

Dragon Speech Recognition Software

Naot Footwear