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The IRNA guide to the latest trends in online recruitment- Accessibility

By Gary Bunker

(Click here to access this article in Adobe Acrobat format)

If you run a bricks and mortar business, what would you do if you found out that one of your store managers was barring wheelchairs and guide dogs from the store? What if you found out that the manager was also refusing to talk to disabled customers and was not allowing them to buy products?

It's a 'no-brainer' of course - you'd step in and rectify the situation immediately, one way or another. But what if it was your Internet site that was doing this..?

In all likelihood, you are doing this right now. There are relatively few web sites that are truly accessible, so unless your web site team have made a specific effort to ensure the site is accessible, then you could well be turning away disabled visitors.

Who are you turning away..?
The first step is to understand who we're talking about here and how you might be turning them away. There are four main groups to consider:

1. Visitors who are blind, or visually impaired
2. Visitors who are deaf
3. Visitors with a physical disability
4. Visitors with a cognitive impairment

Visitors who are blind will be likely to be using a audio browser, software that 'reads' a web page to them and allows them to navigate and interact with it. Visitors with a visual impairment might be using the same technology, or they may use standard browsers with greatly increased font sizes or reduced colours (for increased contrast). There are currently approximately 350,000 registered blind or visually impaired people in the UK. Oh and by the way, don't forget the colour blind - one in twenty Caucasian males might be unable to use your site if you pick poor colour combinations….

Visitors who are deaf will generally not have too many difficulties, unless you're presenting your information in multimedia format without text subtitles. But if you are, then you may be locking out 8.7 million deaf or hard of hearing visitors.

Visitors with a physical disability might be using a specialist interaction device to drive the PC (for example, mouth operated controls), or they may use a standard PC without a mouse, as finite mouse control can be too difficult. In general this will mean they can navigate a page, but if you're using mouse-only controls or auto-navigating controls (for example menus that jump straight to a page without you needing to click on a 'Go' button), they this can stop them in their tracks.

Visitors with a cognitive impairment, for example dyslexia, can be completely thrown out by confusing web design and lack of feedback in the interface. Designs that other visitors might find frustrating, dyslexic visitors can find impossible to use. Severe dyslexia affects approximately 4% of the UK population, and a further 6% suffer from some level of dyslexia. That's potentially one in ten of your site visitors.

Why is this important?
Of course there are strong moral reasons for paying attention to this issue, but there's also a carrot and a stick involved. Let's start with the carrot.

As I've already mentioned, there are very few web sites that are truly accessible, and it takes disabled visitors time to find them and time to learn how to use them. Once they learn to use them, these people tend to be quite loyal visitors. Most of us tend to stick with the sites we know well, even when the learning curve is quite low - people with a disability have a huge learning curve to go through for new sites, so the impetus to stay with something that works is tremendous.

For example, earlier this year Tesco launched the Tesco Access service, an online shopping site designed to be completely accessible. Business is booming, and so it should be - Tesco have exclusive reach to an extra 350,000 customers just for starters! What's more interesting is that many non-disabled customers are switching from the main Tesco site to the Tesco Access site, because they find it easier and faster to use! In general when you improve access to your site for the disabled, you also make life easier for every other visitor as well. For example, the television remote control was originally designed to assist disabled viewers who could not easily cross the room and change channels - but this device now helps just about everyone with a TV set.

Think of it this way - when your web site was designed, it was probably built to be viewable in most of the top browsers that your visitors use. If you found out that 15% of your visitors were using Netscape 4.0 and couldn't even open your home page, the chances are that you'd want to fix that pretty quick - who wants to lose 15% of their site traffic before you even start? Accessibility comes down to the same issue - only instead of just a browser, these visitors are coming to you with different skill requirements and/or technology. And if your site isn't accessible, they may well be stopped dead at the home page. Your Netscape 4.0 visitors at least have the option of upgrading their browsers, visitors with a disability or impairment don't have that luxury.

The web is a wonderful tool for many people with disabilities, it gives them control and freedom that many of them do not easily gain in the physical world - if you build it to be accessible, they will come…

Now for the stick. The Disability Discrimination Act (1995) has been in place for a while now ('96 for part II, '99 for part III), and this act has huge implications for any provider of online services - recruitment included. There has yet to be a test case for this act, but here are the main points of interest.

What does the act say?
For recruiters, the act has a two-pronged approach. Firstly, the act states that employers have to take reasonable measures to make sure that they are not discriminating against disabled people. The act states that it is against the law for an employer to treat a disabled person less favourably than someone else because of their disability (although employers with less than 20 employees are not covered by this part of the act). The act doesn't stop you from hiring the right person for the job, but it does aim to make sure that a disabled person gets the same chance to prove that they might be that right person.

Secondly, the act also covers people who provide goods and services to the public - this includes online provision of information, including recruitment information. It states that it is against the law for someone to run a service, or provide goods or facilities, in a way which makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for a disabled person to use the service or goods.

For example, if a visually impaired employee or job seeker were not able to access online recruitment information due to the information not being accessible via an audio browser, but that same information was available to all others, this would be covered by the act.

So in essence, this means that your web site, including your recruitment section, needs to be accessible to everyone, and it needs to be provided at a consistent standard to everyone. In practical terms, you're going to fall foul of the act if any disabled visitors are unable to use the site, or if they experience a lower level of service than other site visitors - for example, in not being able to read all the information you provide, or in not being able to use an online application form.


What do I have to do?
As both the service provider and the recruiter, you are required to make 'reasonable adjustments' to rectify these issues, and you will again fall foul of the act if you fail to make these adjustments. Just what is reasonable will depend on the cost of making changes and the impact these changes will have on your organisation, but bear in mind that most web sites can be made accessible with relative ease.

Under the act, you have a duty to make reasonable adjustments where visitors with a disability are not able to use your site. This may include changing access to the information so that it is accessible, offering an alternative way to access the information, or offering aids or services to make it easier for disabled people to access.


Is there any way to avoid this responsibility?
If you have less than 20 employees then the employers responsibilities under this act do not apply - although your obligations as a service provider (in providing public online recruitment information) will still apply.

The act makes mention of 'reasonable adjustments', and there are a number of factors to consider to identify which steps would be reasonable in any circumstance. The main factors when considering web site design are going to be:

  • The extent to which it is practicable for you to make the adjustment
  • The financial and other costs of making the adjustment
  • The extent of your financial and other resources
  • The amount of resources already spent on making these adjustments
  • The availability of financial or other assistance

So basically, if the cost of making your site accessible would be prohibitive and unreasonable, then you may find yourself on the right side of the law. However, you need to look carefully at a breakdown of the costs involved for different steps in making your site accessible - if it's unreasonably expensive to make the entire site accessible to everyone, it might be relatively inexpensive to take some steps to make large parts of it accessible to many disabled visitors. You also need to consider how much it would cost to place this information in an alternative form (for example, plain text only pages) on the site.


What is the impact of not doing this?

If a disabled visitor or employee feels that they cannot access your site, receives a lower level of service from your site or is charged at a higher level due to their disability, then you'll be open to litigation.

Right now there are no test cases for this act, but one is likely to appear at any moment - and you don't want it to be you…

Another impact to consider is your own policy on equal opportunities. If you are an equal opportunities employer, then you may be in breach of your own policy if your online recruitment information is not completely accessible. This may again open your organisation up to the risk of litigation.


So how can I avoid this?

The simple answer is to have your site tested for accessibility - there are many usability and accessibility resources out there in the UK that will do this for you, and there are even some basic tests you can perform for yourself in just five minutes (if you want to know more, email me on Gary.Bunker@UsabilityByDesign.com).

In the mean time though, there are some quick steps your designers can take to start fixing up site accessibility:

  1. Put Alternative Text (alt-tags) on all your images. It should convey what is important or relevant about the image (crucial if it is a link also).
  2. Ensure links contain enough useful information about their destination when read out on their own without surrounding text or graphics. (e.g. don't name links 'click here')
  3. Don't use any animated, blinking or flashing graphics or text. If you do, at least ensure it can be switched off or disabled.
  4. Don't assume your audience is using a mouse. Check your site can be used with only a keyboard. A good test is to unplug your mouse and try to use it without.
  5. Don't rely on colour to convey information use it only as an enhancement. Try viewing your site in black and white, or print pages on a non-colour printer. Can you still make sense of the information?
  6. Make sure your font size is large enough to be read easily (at least 10 points, preferably more). Use relative font sizes, which can be overwritten and enlarged with the users browser settings.
  7. Where possible, avoid use frames. If using them, offer NOFRAMES content for people who can't read them.
  8. Provide plain HTML alternatives for users whose assistive software doesn't support access Shockwave, Flash, Scrolling text, JavaScript, Plug-ins etc.
  9. Don't use tables for formatting purposes. Ensure tables are marked up correctly with table headings, row and column headers etc.
  10. Verify your web site for accessibility using Bobby (a free tool) www.cast.org/bobby/. Get an idea of what your web site looks like when viewed through a text only browser (e.g. Lynx). This should give you a pretty good idea of how assistive technologies may break down your pages and where you may have problems.

Useful link
Here's the Government's own site on the matter: http://www.disability.gov.uk.

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