A few years ago, I was standing in front of a room full of developers, designers, and business stakeholders discussing the benefits of web accessibility in the context of a well-known job search site redesign.
“The unemployed must be either lazy or unmotivated, or both,” one developer said. “Surely, in a world where technology makes it so easy to find a job, one can’t help but wonder why so many people still remain unemployed.” The comment was followed by general agreement from those in the room. “Well,” I replied, “maybe job searching is not as easy as you think when everything is focused around web technologies. And it’s even more difficult for people with disabilities.” Their puzzled looks confirmed I had a lot of explaining to do.
The unemployment conundrum of people with disabilities
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (link is external), the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 12.5% in 2014. As of November 2015, a total of 687,000 people with disabilities are without a job. And yet a survey released just last week by the Kessler Foundation (link is external) found that over 2/3 of working-age people with disabilities want to work. If their motivation is not the issue, then what is?
The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law 25 years ago. But every year since its adoption, the employment rate of people with disabilities has edged down. Curiously, this dip has continued to occur since the blooming of online employment solutions. DisabilityStatistics.org claims the number of employed American adults with a work limitation has dwindled year after year (link is external), from 20.4% in 2000, to 12.9% in 2014.
So what’s the problem? It’s bigger than just lack of awareness about the talents of job seekers with disabilities. Technology should be improving the situation, but today it’s less likely than ever that a person with a disability can secure a job.
The painful and undeniable truth
The more I researched and pondered the issue, I realized the problem wasn’t people with disabilities or even employers, but rather the unwitting developers, designers, and business stakeholders behind today’s online recruiting technologies.
As technology developers and web designers, we have a responsibility to create applications that are accessible and usable by the widest number of people possible. It’s far easier to blame end users for not understanding how to properly use the interfaces we build than it is to look at the reasons why they struggle so much with using them. But it’s time we changed that mindset. People with disabilities are, by far, the largest minority group using the web (link is external). So as developers, what, exactly, are we doing to accommodate their needs? How often are we involving users with disabilities in our user testing efforts to ensure that sites meet their expectations?
Making even the smallest accessibility changes can go a long way in creating a more inclusive environment for job-seeking workers with disabilities everywhere. As someone who conducts web accessibility assessments on a regular basis, I can tell you that looking at your forms and keyboard problems is a great place to start. That’s because form fields and keyboard-related issues tend to represent the vast majority of accessibility barriers people run into. And it’s all too common to witness how these issues make it impossible for users with disabilities to successfully complete tasks online.
What five minutes on a job searching site will teach you
I looked at the accessibility of the top 10 best job sites for 2015 (link is external), according to About.com. Here are some of the problems I noted, just by spending a few minutes on each site:
- On most of the sites, keyboard users who are unable to use a mouse cannot reach or activate certain form elements. Many users may also struggle with determining where the focus is when tabbing from one form field to the next because the page lacks visible focus indicators.
- Screen reader users accessing these sites can’t determine the purpose of various form elements because they lack text labels that can be recognized and reliably conveyed to assistive technologies (AT). And when text labels are visually provided, they are not necessarily associated with the form elements in a way that can be interpreted by AT. Users may also struggle with error messaging when error messages can’t be picked up by screen readers.
These are enormous issues on sites that heavily depend on forms-based interactions, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg in terms of other accessibility issues that can yield devastating effects on a person’s overall ability to successfully find a job. If designers and developers were aware of even the most basic accessibility concepts on job search sites, I believe that people with disabilities would hold a much better chance of finding employment. Everyone would benefit!
What can we do about this?
If you’re involved in web design or development, start small. Take a look at the World Wide Web Consortium’s accessibility guidelines (link is external). Then, unplug your mouse and test what you build using only your keyboard. Can you reach and interact every single form element in a predictable and logical order? Look at your forms; are you providing visible text labels for each form element that can be reliably interpreted by screen readers and voice recognition software?
Site users can also assist by reporting keyboard and forms-related issues when you notice them. Web developers and designers are busy folks who mean well, and are easily overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to plow through every day. Most sites offer a way for users to reach out. Use the forms they provide to get in touch–if those forms are accessible enough for you to use them, of course!
It’s up to all of us involved with web design and development to ensure that everyone can use the products we create, and accessibility holds the key. Who would have thought, after all, that we could help fix the problem of unemployment for people with disabilities?