How the Disabled and Elderly Are Treated Differently - Experts Weigh In

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
This statue was added to Washington, DC’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in January of 2001 after advocates objected to a lack of depictions of FDR displaying him with his disability.

For too long, society allowed older adults and persons with disabilities to be defined by what they could not do. But tireless advocacy from individuals and organizations have empowered a new generation to celebrate the achievements and capabilities of disabled individuals, rather than dwelling on their perceived limitations.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, but a look back to yesteryear shows how much progress we have made as a society. It wasn’t too long ago that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to conceal his disability because the idea that the most powerful leader in the world needed mobility assistance was unthinkable.

Bethany Hamilton
Disabilities don’t have to slow anyone down. Just ask Bethany Hamilton, the American pro surfer who survived a tiger shark attack that resulted in the loss of her arm. Her most recent victory took place at the Surf n Sea Pipeline Womens Pro in 2014, in in which she claimed 1st prize.

Today, we are more likely to applaud a person’s perseverance and will to achieve in spite of the obstacles, than we are to consider a disability to be a sign of weakness. This steadfast resolve, coupled with the wonders of modern technology, has allowed millions of capable people to realize independence, self-sufficiency and opportunity that may have been denied years prior.

But have technological advancements begun outpacing society’s perceptions and acceptance of individuals who rely on tools like mobility assistance devices? Despite the progress that has been made over the decades, what remains to be conquered?

How can we continue to progress?

To help us answer those questions, we’ve asked a group of experts in the field to share their thoughts on this matter of critical importance to society.

These are journalists, senior care experts and authors who are touched by disability on daily basis. We’d like to thank our experts for sharing their thoughts, and we are privileged to present their responses here.

Barbara McVicker

Barbara McVicker, award-winning author and national speaker

Barbara McVicker is an eldercare expert, national speaker, author of three award winning books, and she recently launched her PBS-TV special Stuck in the Middle: caring for Mom and Dad. Barbara provides a lifeline for the Boomer Generation who are stuck in the middle of kids, career, and taking care of aging parents. She has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CNN, NPR, FOX, NBC, and others.

How have you witnessed elderly and disabled individuals treated differently due to their use of mobility assistance technology?

I believe that people who aren’t disabled are very fascinated by the high tech devices available for mobility assistance. Whether you’re talking about people coming back from wars, or those who have lost their mobility due to everything from diabetes to stroke, etc. – I don’t think there’s prejudice today. In fact, I think that people tend to stand back and watch because we’re fascinated that someone who would ordinarily have no mobility can, with technology, do things that some never thought they could do independently.

How do you foresee this changing with technological advancements in the field?

I think it’s going to become more and more extraordinary. We’re on the cusp of understanding so much more about how our brains and muscles communicate with each other. And I think in the near future, people who we would’ve dismissed as thinking they would be bed or wheelchair bound are going to have limitless opportunities in new technology. It’s an exciting time for people who have limited mobility, and people are going to be able to live much more easily on their own.

From my standpoint, one of the biggest problems for elderly and disabled people is isolation. Isolation not only takes quality of life, but it reduces its longevity. With my field, it’s very apparent in the elderly; that if they become isolated, this is what happens to them. All of this technology is going to make is so that these people do not have to be isolated – it will improve their quality of life. I am excited about these changes, and with how rapidly they’re going to be implemented.

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John W. Quinn

John Quinn, 20-year Navy Veteran and disability advocate born with cerebral palsy

John W. Quinn was born in Detroit, Michigan in April 1962 with cerebral palsy. One of eight children, John also had a strong desire to serve his country. So, in spite of his partial paralysis, two different sized feet, and the inability to walk prior to the age of four, John joined the United States Navy in January 1982 specializing in administration. He did it while keeping his condition a complete secret out of a deep desire to wear the uniform of his nation. Throughout his distinguished twenty-year career, he has sailed around the world on aircraft carriers, battleships, destroyers, and is a plank owner (founding member) of SEAL Team THREE. Senior Chief Quinn is the author of Someone Like Me, An Unlikely Story of Challenge and Triumph Over Cerebral Palsy. John makes his home in Tucson.

How have you witnessed elderly and disabled individuals treated differently due to their use of mobility assistance technology?

We have a society which judges people very quickly. They see someone who stands different, walks different; or has to use a power chair, a breathing device, or a roller, whatever it might be. They automatically think that that person does not have the ability or cannot do the job. And we need to move past that in our society. We need to look past the disability to find ability.

I have several friends that have disabilities which require mobility device. Just seeing them come into a room, you can see the look on peoples’ faces when they come by. It’s like a feeling of sympathy – my friends don’t ask for it, you know? They don’t want sympathy. They want the opportunity to show what they can do. I don’t experience this as much myself since my palsy is relatively mild, but when people notice my mild limp, they come up and ask me, “What’s wrong with you?”

Well, nothing’s wrong with me. I’m exactly how I was made. Nobody knew about my cerebral palsy throughout my entire 20 year career. Nobody knew until my book came out. I would have loved to have told the truth about my condition from the beginning. It would have made my life and my military career much easier. Nobody should ever have to keep that a secret in order to live a life that they want to.

How do you foresee this changing with technological advancements in the field?

Advancements in technology just give people a better opportunity to show off their talents, and to show what they can do. It’s all about giving people the freedom to live the life that they want for themselves. Whether you want independence, the ability to work, and everything else to live a full, productive life. Technology will play a great role in that moving forward.

I’m fortunate to have a mild disability and not have to use assisted mobility. But I think it’s sometimes an issue of pride to not use assisted mobility technology, where somebody might not think they need assistance when it would make their lives easier. Maybe breaking down that barrier and showing people what’s out there would be a big benefit to society.

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Kathy Birkett

Kathy Birkett, Co-Founder of Knowledge Connection, LLC and Operator/publisher of Senior Care Corner

Kathy is Senior Care Corner’s expert on the lives and care of senior adults, expertise she has gained through over 25 years working with seniors, families and other caregivers in both her professional and personal lives. Kathy has worked with seniors in their homes as well as in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, rehabilitation and hospital settings.

How have you witnessed elderly and disabled individuals treated differently due to their use of mobility assistance technology?

Our older adults who have a disability and are dependent on assistive devices for their safe mobility face the same barrier that younger disabled individuals do—access. Despite governmental mandates of accessibility, many buildings, sidewalks, events and transportation are not easily maneuvered by someone using an assistive mobility device. This inability to get in and out of places where they want to go will limit them from doing all the things they wish to do. This will inevitably lead to a lack of independence.

We also see older adults buying assistive devices intended to improve mobility from a variety of places such as drugstores or mass retailers due to ease of purchase or convenience which are not properly fitted for them. Using a device that is not designed for their use can make them unsafe, just the opposite of what they intended. Getting a device checked by a professional for proper settings and fit is important no matter where they are purchased.

Another concern for older people who use mobility devices can be getting into and out of a bathroom quickly especially if they are alone. Older buildings are not designed for wheelchairs or walkers even if retrofitted for accessibility due to doorway widths and bumpy thresholds which can be hard to traverse. When an older person is trying to navigate in and out of public areas with their mobility devices, other people who are not as understanding as they could be can get angry waiting for them to move faster. They don’t fully realize the difficulty of using a device and can get frustrated with the older person.

How do you foresee this changing with technological advancements in the field?

Medical advances such as cataract surgery, hearing aid technology and joint replacement improvements have helped many seniors stay independent for longer periods of time. Future improvements in these areas can continue to improve a senior’s ability to age in place.

Mobility devices that are lighter, easier to manipulate in and out of buildings, use more advanced materials that are comfortable and easier to carry with them when traveling will help older adults stay connected in their communities. Technology in the future may increase the potential to replace failed joints with an even better option, robotics may change the face of mobility, and smartphone apps could give more information about accessible friendly areas in the community to make the outing easier for all involved.

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Carol B. Bursack

Carol B. Bursack, author and consultant on senior care

Over the span of two decades author, columnist and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Because of this experience, Bradley Bursack created a portable support group – the book “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Her sites, www.mindingourelders.com and www.mindingoureldersblogs.com include helpful resources as well as links to direct support. Bradley Bursack is a newspaper columnist and an eldercare consultant who also writes on caregiving and senior issues for several national websites.

How have you witnessed elderly and disabled individuals treated differently due to their use of mobility assistance technology?

What I witness the most is that, particularly with elders and when someone is in a wheelchair, people tend to yell as if they are hard of hearing.

How do you foresee this changing with technological advancements in the field?

I'm not sure anything but educating the public can help with this issue, however with the rate technology is advancing, it's possible that some form of informing others of the special needs that should be addressed with this particular person may be of help.

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Cathleen Carr

Cathleen Carr, founder of CertifiedCare and elder advocate

Cathleen V. Carr, JD, Msc.D, is the founder and executive director of CertifiedCare. Dr. Carr, an ordained minister, is a national leader in the fight against elder abuse and neglect and a recognized Geriatric Care Specialist and lawyer in the areas of wills, trusts, probate, elder law and elder caregiving. Her extensive background, with over 25 years of experience, covers many specialties including healthcare, law, business and non-profit social action. Her personal background and professional expertise helped to shape a certification program with the highest standards in the elder caregiving field.

How have you witnessed elderly and disabled individuals treated differently due to their use of mobility assistance technology?

I have noticed elderly and disabled individuals are perceived as being more in control of their daily well-being; are treated with more dignity due to being less dependent; are perceived as being more intelligent; and are regarded as being more mainstream rather than marginalized.

How do you foresee this changing with technological advancements in the field?

I foresee an increase in positive and constructive ways, if technology is embraced and adapted to by all concerned, meaning the general public as well as members of the healthcare team. There is a danger, though, of the perceived need for less human interaction and too much reliance on technology, and that is not necessarily desirable, in general.

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Carol Marak

Carol Marak, author on senior care

Carol Marak is a writer and content broadcaster on senior care news. A dedicated senior care writer with an intimate curiosity of what matters beyond adulthood, she does research to find answers to tough concerns: housing, aging and health, staying safe and independent, planning long-term, paying for care, connecting socially, and balancing worry and love for family. Find Carol at AssistedlivingFacilities.org or CareBuzz.com.

How have you witnessed elderly and disabled individuals treated differently due to their use of mobility assistance technology?

This hits hard on me. Individuals living with mobility issues, whether young or old, are treated differently in my eyes. Seeing first-hand with my dad living with mobility issues in older adulthood needing a walker and a wheelchair, he was pushed aside. He felt it was a bother to some due to needing more attention and help with opening doors, finding a placement (in wheelchair) at church and elsewhere so that he didn’t disrupt the flow of pedestrian movement, and especially difficult during shopping events or in restaurants.

There was an attitude of dismissal from others, but that could’ve been my acute awareness to protect my dad. He was much shorter in the wheelchair and difficult for some to make eye contact or bend down and forward to acknowledge him.

How do you foresee this changing with technological advancements in the field?

Technological advancements are helping people run in the Olympics, so there’s clear hope that older adults such as my dad will have access to devices that help them feel normal again.

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