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Investigating the Accessibility and Usability of Job Application Web Sites for Blind Users

Jonathan Lazar, Abiodun Olalere, and Brian Wentz

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 7, Issue 2, February 2012, pp. 68 - 87

Article Contents


Employers today commonly place job advertisements and applications online (Braddy, Meade, & Kroustalis, 2008; Bruyere, Erickson, & VanLooy, 2005; Nakamura, A., Shaw, Freeman, Nakamura, E., & Pyman, 2009), and job recruiters consider online job applications to be fast, efficient, and cost-effective. Many job seekers view online applications as both convenient and enhancing their prospects of securing jobs (Breen, 2000; Capellli, 2001; Meskauskas, 2003; Younger, 2008). Individual companies advertise jobs on their Web sites or outsource the task to recruiting companies or job boards, which also place the jobs online (Williams & Verhoeven, 2008). Both sighted and non-sighted (blind) job seekers go to the same sources online to search and compete for jobs, but many Web sites that post these jobs are not accessible to blind people who depend on assistive technologies to access Web sites (Bruyere, Erickson, & VanLooy, 2005; Lazar et al., 2011). The purpose of this project was to evaluate the level of difficulty that blind users have when attempting to submit job applications online, and to determine what specific components of the application (e.g., finding an open position, previous education, references, account creation) cause the greatest problems. Previous usability evaluations of employment Web site aggregators, such as hotjobs.com and careerbuilder.com, focused on using assistive technologies and expert reviews (Bruyere, Erickson, & VanLooy, 2005; Lazar et al., 2011), but no usability testing involving individuals with disabilities attempting to apply for jobs online has previously been conducted. The goal of this project was to evaluate the accessibility and usability of online employment Web sites, by having blind users attempt to apply for jobs online.


Employment is a core ingredient in self-esteem, independence, and happiness (Frey & Stutzer, 2002). In a recent study in the UK to measure the nation’s wellbeing, having a job was linked to happiness and self-esteem (Ross, 2011), and unemployment has been shown to have a negative effect on happiness (Frey, 2008). Historically, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities, especially blind individuals, is high (Wang, Barron, & Hebl, 2010), despite the fact that blind people want to work and be productive, pay taxes, and be financially independent (National Federation of the Blind [NFB], 2010). As an example of how accessibility challenges hinder blind people who want to work, a study has shown that computer frustrations (such as inaccessibility of Web sites) can negatively impact the mood of blind individuals, but only when it impacts their work (Lazar, Feng, & Allen, 2006). In the US, about 70% of working-age blind people are unemployed (NFB, 2011), and the estimates in other countries also reflect high unemployment—about 66% in the UK (Royal National Institute of Blind People [RNIB], 2011a) and about 75% in Canada (Canadian Federation of the Blind [CFB], 2011). This figure is high compared to the general unemployment rate of approximately 8.6% in the US (Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS], 2011), 8.3% in UK (Office for National Statistics [ONS], 2011), and 7.4% in Canada (Statistics Canada [SC], 2011). It is obvious that the goal of equal employment for the blind is still far from being realized.

Today, the recruitment world has moved from the traditional method of job advertisement (handbills, job boards, newspapers, etc.) to online advertisement (news, social networking, blogs, job boards, recruiting Web sites, employer Web sites, etc.). There is a proliferation of general online job application Web sites (often known as “job aggregator Web sites”), and most companies also advertise job openings on their own Web sites. Convenience, scope, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness among other factors, have endeared many job seekers, employers, and recruiting companies to prefer the online approach (Capellli, 2001; Mehkauskas, 2003; Younger, 2008). For blind people who use assistive technologies to access the Web, the opportunity to apply for jobs online could, theoretically, be good news, however, inaccessible job application Web sites actually lead to discrimination and an inability to even apply for a job (Hastings, 2010; Everett, 2011).

Legal Status of Employment Web Sites

Currently, there have not been any known court cases in the US relating to the legality of inaccessible online employment applications. Online employment applications are likely covered under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of the US, which requires that all employers that have federal contracts or subcontracts of at least $10,000 “must take affirmative action to hire, retain, and promote qualified individuals with disabilities” (60-741.1).In July 2010, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs at the U.S. Department of Labor issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) to strengthen the regulations relating to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the ANPRM included a question (#13) relating to accessible online hiring processes, with comments due on September 21, 2010 (Department of Labor [DOL], 2011). Specifically, the text of the ANPRM was “What impact would result from requiring that Federal contractors and subcontractors make information and communication technology used by job applicants in the job application process, and by employees in connection with their employment fully accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities?1 What are the specific costs and/or benefits that might result from this requirement?” No further action has been taken yet by the Department of Labor related to this advanced notice of proposed rulemaking.

Within the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title I addresses discrimination in employment, and Title III addresses discrimination in the 12 categories of “public accommodations.” The ADA was signed into law in 1990 before the advent of online employment Web sites. However, since the mid-1990s, U.S. Department of Justice statements and various court rulings (such as National Federation of the Blind vs. Target) have stated that the Americans with Disabilities Act does apply to Web sites of public accommodations. Furthermore, the Department of Justice began the rulemaking process in 2010 for creating specific guidance for Web accessibility within the ADA, with an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking, titled “Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Government Entities and Public Accommodations” (Department of Justice [DOJ], 2010). While the ANPRM does not specifically mention online employment applications, it is expected that online employment applications would be automatically covered as a part of the requirement for accessibility of the Web sites of public accommodations.

Many other nations have supported the call to make Web sites accessible to people with disabilities that use assistive technologies (Lazar et al., 2011). Laws have been enacted, such as the Equality Act 2010 in the UK (RNIB, 2011b), and the Financial Administration Act (containing Common Look and Feel standards) in Canada (Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat [TBCS], 2007). The World Wide Web Consortium has also developed standards and guidelines for designing accessible Web sites (W3C, 2011a). However, the goal of a fully accessible Web is far from being realized, as research has shown that many Web sites, including Web sites required to be accessible by law (such as government Web sites covered by Section 508) aren’t accessible (Olalere & Lazar, 2011).

Previous Evaluations4

A number of evaluations have previously been conducted on the accessibility of employment Web sites, but these evaluations used automated tools, expert inspection, or a combination of both. Previous research has not involved having blind users attempt to apply for jobs online. In addition to validating that the problems identified by automated tools or expert reviews are real, user-based testing may clarify what the problems are, and identify additional problems. While usability testing takes additional resources to conduct, it provides more depth about problems and solutions. Furthermore, while expert reviews can be most effective for evaluating compliance with regulations on one Web page, usability testing with people with disabilities is most effective in determining whether people with disabilities can successfully complete a task involving a series of interrelated subtasks, such as applying for a job online or completing an e‑commerce transaction, or requesting government benefits (Lazar et al., 2011).

Many job application Web sites have been found to be inaccessible. Bruyere, Erickson, and VanLooy (2005) conducted an accessibility evaluation of 10 job boards and 31 e-recruiting Web sites for accessibility using an automated evaluation tool (Bobby v3.2) and an expert-simulation of the application process using a screen reader. From the results, none of the job boards evaluated were accessible; a majority of the e-recruiting Web sites were inaccessible and only three out of the 12 corporate Web sites were accessible enough for the expert-simulated process to go through. Lazar et al. (2011) also performed accessibility evaluations on eight job aggregator Web sites. Aggregator Web sites (such as careerbuilder.com and hotjobs.com) are those that provide job postings from multiple employers and allow users to submit applications directly through the site for many of those employers (Williams & Verhoeven, 2008). Lazar et al. (2011) used expert inspections to determine job aggregators’ Web site compliance with Section 508 guidelines. The results showed that seven of the eight employment aggregator Web sites evaluated had accessibility violations.

1For example, requiring that contractors ensure that application and testing kiosks are fully accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities, and that contractors strive to ensure that their Internet and Intranet Web sites satisfy the United States Access Board’s accessibility standards for technology used by the Federal Government and subject to section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.


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