If you have applied for a job any time since the beginning of the 21st century, you are probably familiar with online job applications. eRecruiting systems and applicant tracking software have replaced traditional paper applications in the modern job search, often to the dismay of job applicants. After all, there are many little frustrations when applying online: each company has different software, often requiring a password that you will soon forget; many systems require you to attach your résumé, only to then require you to regurgitate your work history into a separate online form; and online job applications are often lengthy, taking much more time than simply writing a cover letter to attach with your résumé.
Now imagine the following scenario: you have almost completed an online job application, encountering one or all of the above issues, but when you go to hit the button to submit the application, you find two unlabeled buttons, one that could cancel your work and one that could submit it. Which do you choose?
This may sound absurd to you, but for a blind job applicant, it is a common scenario. In fact, it is one of the many common inaccessibility issues with eRecruiting software that disabled job applicants face every day. According to a 2015 survey of job seekers with disabilities by the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT), 46 percent of respondents said that their latest experience applying for a job online was "difficult to impossible." The result of this, according to PEAT, is that employers are failing to recruit the qualified applicants who are excluded from the applicant pool due to inaccessible job applications. However, through their new online resource, TalentWorks, PEAT is beginning to educate employers on the importance of accessibility and improve the employment process for disabled applicants.
Inaccessibility "an Epidemic"
For Sassy Outwater, inaccessible job applications aren't just an occasional hindrance, but something much worse. "I quantify it as an epidemic," says Outwater, who works with small businesses to improve their accessibility. For Outwater, who is blind, the unlabeled submit and delete buttons on a job application mentioned above are just a few of the real obstacles she has seen, both as an applicant and in her work. "[Some of the more frequent problems are] unlabeled or mislabeled building blocks of the websites, like buttons and links, that say one thing but do another. Sometimes blind users can't read images [with a screen reader] because there's no alt text [a type of descriptive captioning used so that blind users can interpret the image]. Sometimes applications time out, or the contrast is such that an applicant is not able to see colors on the screen." These barriers are frequent and exasperating. For Outwater, "it's pretty common that you just get frustrated and give up or have to start with a new screen reader and browser combination. Sometimes it takes three or four tries to troubleshoot."
The impact isn't just longer application times or fewer applications, but the exclusion of an entire population. "It's a huge loss for the job market. There are plenty of incredibly qualified disabled candidates out there that could do an amazing job," explains Outwater. "The Department of Labor says that only 17.5 percent of the disabled population is employed. There would be a massive outcry if that were the regular population."
A New Opportunity to Educate Employers on Accessibility
To the folks at the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT), an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), the inaccessibility of the eRecruiting process is a natural place to start addressing job market inequality for workers with disabilities. "As we all know, the Internet has changed how we search for jobs, with most people finding and applying for job openings online," says Project Director Josh Christianson in an email interview. "Some companies even conduct pre-employment assessments and virtual interviews on the web before they ever meet a job candidate in person--if they do so at all. But we know that too many of those job application websites, forms, pre-employment tests and online interview platforms are not accessible, which is preventing many qualified people with disabilities from fairly competing for job openings...and employers are losing out, as well, since they are limiting their recruitment pool, and their potential to benefit from the great return on investment that comes from hiring and advancing individuals with disabilities."
To understand these challenges, PEAT conducted interviews with key parties involved in disability and employment, including accessible technology consultants, employers, disability advocates, and other experts to see how inaccessibility in eRecruiting impacted them. They also conducted a survey of job seekers with disabilities on their experiences using online job application tools, where they found the statistic that 46 percent of respondents to the survey had difficulty in applying for jobs online because of inaccessibility.
In response to these findings, PEAT developed the TalentWorks tool, which educates key players in employment and technology on the inaccessibility of eRecruiting and provides resources on how to address and remediate those issues. "We designed and structured the tool based on what we learned through our qualitative and quantitative research," explains Joiwind Ronen, PEAT's Lead Strategic Consultant. "TalentWorks starts by giving employers a context. It explains the [return on investment] of hiring people with disabilities, walks them through best practices for purchasing accessible tools, and gives an overview of policy and legal issues. The meat of the site is focused on the three main components of eRecruiting: talent sourcing, job applications, and pre-employment testing. Each section features videos, tip sheets, and examples of common accessibility issues and how to fix them."
When asked what they hope employers would take from TalentWorks, Christianson states that "...our immediate wish is that HR professionals will use the tool and see it as an opportunity to enhance and improve the accessibility of their online recruiting processes."
Tapping into Disabled Talent Pool: Not Just Ethical, but "Business Sense"
According to Gabrielle Nagle, Community Marketing Specialist for GettingHired, America's largest online career community for job seekers and veterans with disabilities, employers' continued ignorance of their eRecruiting systems' inaccessibility has serious long-term implications. "The rate of unemployment for individuals with disabilities is double the national average," says Nagle. "Without breaking down these accessibility barriers, this number will never significantly improve, while the population of individuals with a disability will continue to grow with the population living longer and the age of retirement being prolonged."
As for accessibility in the actual hiring process, Nagle agrees that the technological basis of the hiring process is difficult for job seekers with disabilities, but also believes that there is greater motivation on behalf of employers to hire from the disabled workforce. "The recent legislative changes in the Rehabilitation Act to Section 503 are clearly a big part of this trend as they set clear goals that many companies have to meet and the [Department of Labor] has been following through and holding companies accountable," says Nagle. "The most forward-thinking businesses are also starting to recognize that tapping into this talent pool makes business sense."
This begs the questions: are employers becoming more aware that their eRecruiting systems are inaccessible, and is demand for accessible eRecruiting systems increasing? According to Peter Wallack, Senior Director of the Accessibility Program at Oracle, the answers are mixed. "Demand for accessible systems has steadily increased, yet I still don't see as much demand as I would expect. If you look at all of the procurement and discrimination laws worldwide, probably no employer or vendor is immune from some form of regulation in this area." In his role at technology corporation Oracle, a company that produces eRecruiting software such as Oracle Taleo Talent Acquisition Cloud, Wallack manages the company's standards with regard to accessibility and ensures that staff is aware of and trained on accessibility as a corporate standard at Oracle.
Wallack acknowledges that accessibility can often be lost among the many different requirements of a system. "The bottom line is that enterprise-class applications face a long list of customer requirements including security, audit trail, privacy, multiple-platform support, translation, internationalization, and of course business functionality." But while he agrees that it can be challenging, he also agrees that including accessibility in an application's design is worth the effort. "There is no question that remediation can be costly...but at Oracle we recognize that there are legal, business, and ethical reasons to create products that are usable by the broadest possible set of users."
PEAT's Goal: Make the Workforce "Open and Accessible to Everyone"
According to Christianson and Ronen, TalentWorks will help employers to become more educated on the importance of the accessibility of their systems. "Accessibility issues are generally not intentional on the part of the employer or technology provider," Christianson explains. "After all, not everyone is aware of accessibility issues--and that's where PEAT can help. We're here to increase awareness and understanding, and guide employers and their developers to the tools they need to improve the accessibility of their eRecruiting and workplace technologies."
However, TalentWorks is not just a one-way initiative to educate employers about inaccessibility, but is actually designed to engage its users on a deeper level. Ronen explains: "we love the multimedia and interactive features. Users can easily share tip sheets, participate in polls, and provide feedback on new resources they'd like us to add. At its core, PEAT is about collaboration and action around accessible technology and employment, so TalentWorks is a great reflection of that."
When exploring the TalentWorks site, it is easy to see why they are so eager for employers to take advantage of the resources available to them, as a brief glance shows articles and videos addressing everything from social media use to legal requirements of accessibility, making online recruiting events accessible to purchasing accessible eRecruiting technology. At the bottom of the page, users are invited to submit recommendations for resources to add to the page, share their eRecruiting success story, or share another idea with the team behind TalentWorks on how to improve accessibility. These functions encourage users of the site not to just passively read the information, but to actually engage with TalentWorks to brainstorm and discuss improvements on accessibility.
While the goal is to improve employers' knowledge of accessible eRecruiting, it is important to not lose sight of why this is so important in the first place: it enables the connection of a qualified, but often-ignored and misunderstood population of disabled workers to employers who can benefit from their contributions. "We ultimately want to see more people with disabilities participating fairly in the job search process, and for more employers to benefit from the skills and talents of workers with disabilities," explains Christianson, "but our immediate wish is that HR professionals will use the tool and see it as an opportunity to enhance and improve the accessibility of their online recruiting processes. TalentWorks makes it easy for employers to educate their design and development teams on accessibility best practices, and to get their purchasing departments to use our model procurement language. The goal is help ensure that America's workplaces and job opportunities are accessible and open to everyone."
For more information, please visit PEAT TalentWorks