The age-disability connection
An elderly man crossing a street and a young woman making her way
to class in a bright-red wheelchair. What do these individuals
have in common? More than you might imagine.
The growing needs of people with disabilities, combined with the
concerns of an aging society, raise certain questions: How should
government and public policy view the needs of the older disabled
person? How should the interests of two important constituencies
-- people who now have disabilities and older people who may
someday face disabilities -- be addressed? Historically,
disparate policy approaches set down by government agencies have
unwittingly put these two groups at separate ends of the
The 1990 census revealed that 12 percent of the U.S. population -
- roughly 31 million people -- are 65 or older. More than half
have disabilities that limit their daily activities. Among
minority groups the number increases to more than 60 percent.
These dry and impersonal statistics graphically illustrate that
it is in the interest of older individuals and organizations
concerned with aging to be part of a broader disability agenda.
The disability movement has taken great legal and social strides.
Two sweeping examples are the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which
maintains the independence of physically disabled people, and the
ADA, which prohibits discrimination against disabled people.
Conversely, the disability community has learned much from the
aging community. In fact, the Census Bureau's and ADA's very
definition of disability is broad enough to cover not only the
obvious issues of physical disability, but also other conditions
such as arthritis and Alzheimer's disease.
And that's just a beginning. The current Administration is fully
committed to promoting a partnership between the aging and
disability communities. President Clinton and Secretary [of
Health and Human Services] Donna Shalala are meeting their mutual
interests through efforts that provide all individuals with
disabilities, regardless of age, a variety of home- and community-
We at the Administration on Aging are prepared to assist older
people in maintaining their self-sufficiency. To better serve
people with disabilities, we have formed partnerships with such
agencies as the Administration for Children and Families, the
Health Care Financing Administration, the Social Security
Administration, and the Department of Education. We realize that
behind every statistic, whether it indicates age or disability,
there is a person struggling to keep his/her independence, remain
an active member of society, and fulfill his/her potential. --
Fernando Torres-Gil, M.S.W., Ph.D.
The author, Assistant Secretary for Aging in the
Department of Health and Human Services, is a person
with a disability. He is on leave from the University
of California at Los Angeles.