Tea Cures Captchas: Accessible Online Job Applications are More Than a Best Practice

When I applied for my first job, I was handed a print application. As a blind freshman in college, I decided to brazen it out and not ask for help filling out private information in a waiting room full of strangers who were probably there wanting the same job. I scanned the application into my computer, and brought it back neatly typed. I never got called in for an interview though, perhaps because my typed application didn’t look like the handwritten ones.

Years later, I was at my favorite café, facing another job application. This time, however, the job had an online application. Most businesses had shifted to online applications, but I found that the majority of online applications were partially or completely inaccessible.

I spent 90 minutes and two large green jasmine teas filling out that application. I vacillated between disclosing my disability in my cover letter, or just waiting until I showed up for the interview to tell the employer I was blind. Finally, decisively, I put my blindness and the talents it had helped me cultivate into the skills column. After all, being blind means I have to be resourceful, innovative, diplomatic, adaptable, organized… and that’s just to get through filling out an online job application.

I went to hit the submit button.

There was no submit button.

My screen reader found a button with no label other than “Button,” and a string of alphanumeric characters. I felt like some adventurer on a Saturday morning cartoon show, except my future rent and groceries depended on what happened when I pushed that button. It could have been the clear all button or the cancel button or the submit button. I pushed that button with a feeling of doom.

A CAPTCHA screen popped up. “Enter the text you see in the image.” Doom had arrived, and it did not have an audio alternative. As if hunting for a job when blind wasn’t hard enough, the application process was taking me out of the running before I even got a chance to compete. And I needed a job. The recession was in full swing. I pounded my fist on the table in helpless and scared fury, inadvertently knocking my teacup over, spilling the dregs of my tea onto my laptop. I began feeling around on the table for the napkin holder to clean up the mess.

“May I help?” The man at the table behind me turned around, took in the situation at a glance, and handed me a stack of napkins. “Thanks.” I cleaned up the tea and mentally resurrected that bold blind college kid. A little older, a little wiser, but maybe this time the risk would pay off. “Can you help me with a computer issue?”

“I’ll try.”

I pointed at my screen. “My text-to-speech screen reader can’t read that image. Could you read it for me?”

“Oh, you just need my eyeballs, not my brain. That’s easy,” he said. I laughed.

He read the text; I entered it. I hit submit, then he asked me out to dinner.

I got the job offer, but told the company I couldn’t in good conscience accept unless they modified their application process to be inclusive. I wanted accessibility as part of my hiring package, not just because of my personal need for a reasonable accommodation, but because I wanted to work for a company anyone could access.

They agreed, found the problems, fixed them, and I came on board. My disability, in this instance, was the catalyst that led to several excellent outcomes. The company not only successfully recruited the top candidate for the position, but also became more accessible and useable for both their employees and clientele. And for the record, napkin guy now works in digital accessibility.

As businesses compete to attract talented, skilled employees, it’s important to make sure that artificial barriers aren’t blocking their path. Not everyone has a napkin guy at the next table when the CAPTCHA pops up, and employers may be missing out on the top candidates when he isn’t there.  In order to attract and retain the best talent, workplace technology must be accessible and usable by everyone—and it starts as an online application that anyone can utilize.

About the Author

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Sassy Outwater

Sassy Outwater is a recognized leader in small business digital accessibility. She believes that every business can and should be both digitally and physically accessible to all customers and employees. Her work with companies in publishing, fashion, healthcare, retail, lingerie, and entertainment has earned her a reputation for pioneering new ways of approaching old accessibility challenges that benefit both a business and its customers.