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The Aging-Disability Information Disconnect

Aging in New York.  You may know about the World Health Organization’s Age Friendly Cities initiative, announced in 2007.  And perhaps you know all about Age-Friendly New York, launched in 2009 as a result of the WHO. Lots of folks like to say how age-friendly NYC is – which I have always thought was odd, if not downright laughable – having battled across streets in NYC with a wide range of pedestrian walk times, deep puddles masking ramp cut-outs, and a subway system map that favors insider knowledge. Senior Planet in NYC has some more info on what makes a city age-friendly:  “New York has an amazing public transportation system going for it. Even though it’s not perfect and could be improved upon, we know that aging people use subways and buses regularly.”

The WHO designation is good PR – but is it reality?  Like lots of urban PR, the WHO designation means that seniors who live there can hopefully find and engage with what they need. For their sake, one hopes that they can navigate crosswalks pretty quickly in crowds, know the subway map well, and spend quality time getting referrals on where to go and what to do – from locals. But have you seen Jason Silva’s When I Walk? This documentary is about a young man’s experience being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at the age of 25. His effort to preserve his independence and ability to navigate the city inspired the documentary and also inspired his activism about accessibility options in the city -- including describing the combination of bus and ferry that cost him more than an hour to get from Brooklyn to lower Manhattan (less than a 15 minute subway ride away) because he was unable to take the subway. Why was that? His stop in Brooklyn had no elevator for people in wheelchairs.

The AXS (access) map was born of Jason’s experience in New York City.  So now there is a crowd-updated website, the AXS Map of accessible locations, that extends well beyond the NYC locations. There is a link to accessible restaurants near Boston. And San Francisco. And Paris.  Which brings me back to the WHO, still producing PDF documents about urban 'Age Friendly Cities' as recently as 2013.  But there is no map by urban category of interest, sadly.  So the question to ponder is whether the AXS map tool is relevant to seniors, which, of course it is, per this Philips link that notes 40% of the 85+ population require 'mobility assistance'-- aka walkers, canes, and wheelchairs. One might imagine that an accessible restaurant would be of interest to them (or to their caregivers). According to the documentary, 100,000 people have shared local knowledge for the AXS mapping process, which has an instruction video on how to contribute information to the map.

Who knows who’s who at WHO? This brings me to the politics of aging and disability – known by many, but rarely discussed. Aging people become disabled, and disabled individuals will most likely age. But do they ever work together on common objectives? Take a look at CSUN – an event that primarily seems to attract young people with disabilities. Take a look at Carnegie Mellon’s QoLT center – with a mission to focus on research and technologies to aid those with a disability and also, but not primarily, to assist with aging. Yet the project Jason Silva began in NYC and beyond is as relevant to seniors as any aging-related initiative. Go ahead – find a restaurant that accommodates wheelchairs and has an accessible bathroom in Chicago – the city of the American Society on Aging Conference and the 2015 What’s Next Boomer Business Summit. The AXS map knows. Check it out.