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Web-Work-Search-System: Enhanced accessibility

Elspeth McKay and Jennifer Martin
RMIT University
Finding work is never an easy process. Currently job-seekers have to wade through several information sources (newspapers, complex computer listings, Internet browsers that contain employers' vacancy listings, computerised databases with job-matching facilities, and cold-call telephone canvassing). However, job-seeking tasks are even more difficult for the disabled, and despite the Web Access Initiative (WAI), there are no Web-enabled work searching systems designed as vocational rehabilitation tools. This paper describes an applied research project, which aims to explore the educational aspects and general accessibility of Web-based work search resources for unemployed people (or those seeking the opportunity for a change of employment) with a physical, sensory, intellectual or psychiatric disability or illness. Throughout this paper the term disabled will be used to refer to this group of people.

Based on the needs expressed by industry partners, governmental representatives and self-help agencies, a Web-Work-Search-System (WWSS) is currently undergoing a planning/scoping process. The WWSS will provide a computerised platform offering experiential work-place examples for people who may have never been employed, or may not have sufficient recall of past work related experiences. If successful, the WWSS will improve the existing agencies' ability to deliver a specially targeted work searching resource. This research is responsive to the real world issues faced by the self-help agencies and their clients alike; in particular, the dilemma of finding employers who are cognisant of the special needs of vocational rehabilitation programs. A primary objective of the research initiative is to devise effective instructional strategies to inform vocational rehabilitation providers, and to better understand how to generate appropriate opportunities for disabled individuals seeking to enter the work force.


This paper describes an applied research project which aims to explore the general accessibility of Web-based work search resources for unemployed individuals who may experience some type of recognised disability. The WWSS will be designed based on the needs expressed by industry partners, governmental representatives, and self-help agencies. The WWSS will improve the existing placement agencies' ability to deliver a specially targeted work searching resource. This custom designed system will reflect real world issues faced by specialised placement agencies and their clients alike. However finding employers who are willing to become involved in a work place rehabilitation program is complex and requires much patience. Consequently the WWSS specifications for this research must take a simple approach in order to remain manageable.

This is a small research project-in-progress that is part of a much wider debate on how to devise effective instructional strategies to re-educate people about professional practice.

The main objective of the project is to:

Build a user friendly Web-portal which brings together understanding employers, offering appropriate employment opportunities, with unemployed people who require assistance in finding work, due to some type of disability.
The current figures on workforce statistics are presented first, to highlight the size of the problem and identify where gaps lie in relation to providing appropriate accessibility to employment information and fulfilling the special needs of vocational rehabilitation. Next, a number of problems associated with offering specialist job-seeking tools are briefly discussed; while the research outcomes that form the basis for the unique environmental context follow. Finally there is a short outline of the research methodology planned to commence once the planning/scoping process is complete.


The national unemployment rate currently stands at 7.0%, representing approximately 700,000 unemployed Australians (ABS, 2002, January). In 1998, 3.6 million people in Australia (19% of the total population) had a disability (ABS, 1998), (an increase of 1.1 million from 1988) (ABS, 1988). Approximately 15% (540,000) of the disabled identified a mental or behavioural disorder as their main condition. An additional 3.1 million Australians had an impairment or long term condition that did not restrict their everyday activities (ABS, 1998). The latest figures available on employment rates for the disabled (pending release of the 2001 census data) is the 1993 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (ABS, 1998):7-16. The workforce participation rate of any group is the number of persons in the labour force (employed plus unemployed) in that group expressed as a percentage of the population in the same age group. The participation rate for persons with a handicap aged 15-64 years in households was 46.5% (593.000 people in 1993), compared with 73.6% for all persons aged 15-64 years (ABS, 1998):14. Of those handicapped persons participating in the workforce, 21% were unemployed approximately double the national unemployment rate in 1993.

To address this serious problem, the state and federal governments have installed comprehensive information and referral services, such as availability services, support groups, news and events (Disability Information Victoria, 2001). In Australia there are a number of programs offered by the Department of Family and Community Services that provide a one-stop recruitment shop for large and small employer organisations (NSW, 2001); (VIC/Tas, 2001); (Qld, 2001); (WA, 2001); (SA, 2001). However the Centrelink Offices and the Department's website may be too daunting for someone trying to return to the work force after some type of medical trauma.

Looking for work involves a synthesis of decisions relating to many separate issues including: skills (task analysis), employer requirements (formal and informal behaviours), remuneration (part-time/full-time/voluntary), location (distance to travel from home), and transportation (familiarity and convenience issues). There can be little doubt these decisions require a motivated attitude towards finding work. However, the necessary concentration for bringing together all these disparate decisions is often too much for people undergoing vocational rehabilitation (Anon, 2002a). Failure can rapidly de-motivate these already cognitively fragile people, leading to a further spiral downwards, reinforcing their isolation from the workforce.

There is an emerging international trend for researchers to focus on workforce accessibility (Section 508, 2001). While there are many types of human functional disability - some of which are the result of the aging process (Vanderheiden, 1990); the concentration is mainly towards catering for the more definable functional limitations of work seekers, with only limited research specifically designed to assist those recovering from a severe medical condition which hinders concentration. Australia is following movement brought about by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, with some work currently underway towards improving general accessibility to information. Current initiatives include the draft Schools Online Curriculum Content Initiative (SOCCI) accessibility standard; and a review by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to develop enhanced technologies that include specifications, guidelines, software, and tools. The Web Access Initiative (WAI), in coordination with organisations around the world, are pursuing accessibility of the Web through five primary areas of work: technology, guidelines, tools, education and outreach, and research and development [see]. However, this collective understanding still only addresses the issues surrounding the interactive effect of physical impairment and accessibility to information (, 2001). In Victoria there are vocational rehabilitation programs which are specifically designed for individuals dealing with an intellectual or psychiatric disability (currently underway in Melbourne's western suburbs). One such day program for adults is sponsored by the Mental Illness Fellowship (Vic) (MIFV), in collaboration with a specialised placement agency; while another caters specifically for younger people (Mental Health Service for Kids & Youths (MH Sky).

Implementation of the accessibility standards set out by The W3C and WAI has commenced through industry/academic partnerships. Macromedia Inc., a partner in this research, is one of the global leaders in implementing the accessibility standards, and is actively disseminating this approach in Australia, through an e-Learning consortium involving universities and K-12 students. In addition, an accessibility and e-Learning forum was recently held in Melbourne (Macromedia e-Learning and Accessibility Seminars, 2001) leading the way with Australian Universities to develop accessibility neutral policies.

There is a timely acknowledgment that educational IT researchers should concentrate on accessibility issues with the W3C and WAI providing excellent dissemination forums (, 2001). Notwithstanding this, there is a sizeable gap in relation to appropriate accessibility to employment information that fulfils the special needs of vocational rehabilitation (Anon, 2002b). This is a complex problem to address; consequently the WWSS will be kept as simple as practicable to identify and validate important variables that underpin the data analysis and subsequent completion report.

Design issues

While finding work for the long-term unemployed is important, providing appropriate rehabilitation opportunities for work is also a major issue. Consequently several potential problem areas have already been identified during the planning/ scoping process, including: These difficulties in developing specialist job-seeking resources are due to a number of complex circumstances: Firstly, the incentives for employers to be involved in vocational rehabilitation programs are poorly funded. This may be a political problem arising out of state and federal interaction. Secondly, appropriate job vacancy data is difficult to locate; with the information kept in different places (Personal communication, 2001). Some of the relevant material is located in hard copy format, while other types of information are computerised. In locating the former, it is very time consuming, while the latter requires advanced human-computer interaction (HCI) skills. In both cases, the job-seeker is required to concentrate for long periods, with the expectation they can make informed decisions at the end of each work searching session. When such work search outcomes are negative, this type of experience tends to de-motivate, and may reinforce a negative attitude towards self-esteem (McKay, 2000b). Dealing with the sensitivity issues related to maintaining a balance between the basic right for privacy and the need to collaborate with employers willing to embrace vocational rehabilitation programs, can become difficult. Finally, the business sector is in general decline and the filling of vacant positions is highly competitive, reducing the employers willingness to participate in work related rehabilitation programs.

The overall objective of the WWSS is to offer specialist job-seeking tools for disabled people. An important aspect of this work will be to investigate the effectiveness of specialised instructional strategies that create a new approach for learning new work related skills.

Conceptual framework

Theories of normalisation and community care have had a major impact on policy and service developments in the disability field in England, the United States, Canada and Australia since the middle of the 20th century (Martin, 1999); (Wearing, 1998); (Ash, Burvill, Davies, et al., 2001). This has seen the implementation of programs of de-institutionalisation, and the closure of stand-alone institutions. People with disabilities are now living in the community and accessing general health, community and employment services (Human Services, 1996; 1998; 2000). A main premise of normalisation theory relates to the stigma and social disadvantage associated with having a disability (Wolfensberger, 1972); (Epstein & Olsen, 2001). People with a disability often experience high levels of social disadvantage and stigma. Alongside theories of normalisation and de-institutionalisation have been policies of economic rationalisation with the privatisation of general health, mental health, intellectual disability, community welfare, and employment services (Wearing, 1998). This has resulted in tremendous growth in recent years in the number of service providers across these areas. Unfortunately however those who have a disability may find negotiating services in the employment field too daunting, particularly if they are fearful of being discriminated against because of their disability.

Web-based learning has the potential to provide open, flexible and distributed learning environments (McKay & Martin, 2002). The environmental context of the research described briefly in this paper is unique, because it addresses the needs of people previously left out of the emerging e-Learning communities (Ellis, 2000). It has been proposed that converged theoretical paradigms that underpin digitised or context-mediated learning systems are forcing people who use them into new ways of thinking (McKay, 2002). In fact the WWSS will reflect a melding of information technology (IT), psychology, social welfare, and instructional science.

The expected outcomes will be to provide:

Enhanced job-seeking resources will benefit many people ordinarily not included in mainstream programs (Kakutani, 1998). In Australia there are currently 19% of the unemployed job-seekers who through their disability may be disadvantaged in accessing information for gaining employment. This paper has identified some of the challenges involved in turning this inequity around. The authors believe a good place to begin is to investigate the effectives of including e-Learning systems customised to meet the special needs of vocation rehabilitation. Computers offer flexible and dynamic instructional/learning environments. They can depict minute detail or convey holistic environments where imaginary events can be witnessed (Gibbons & Fairweather, 1998). However due to the sensitivity of this innovative customised computer-mediated job-seeking tool (to provide a non-threatening and cognitively safe environment), the research methodology requires careful attention.

Research approach

The researchers will investigate a number of issues as work progresses; however, the overarching question is:
To what extent does the WWSS enhance acquisition of employment information for individuals with a physical, sensory, intellectual or psychiatric disability or illness?
An initial experiment will be conducted that tests the WWSS portal for people undergoing vocational rehabilitation programs in Victoria, Australia. This initiative will follow an empirical experimental research design. The statistical analysis will be used to complement narrative evaluations of feedback material from participants/stakeholders. This triangulation of the data analysis will enhance the hypotheses testing and enrich the experimental findings.

Project phases

This research will be conducted using a 5-phase project methodology.

Phase 1: Concept Phase (Completed).
The concept for the WWSS has been developed over 6 months by the authors.

Phase 2: Scoping/Planning Phase (In progress) 2002 - 2003.
The scope of the research is currently being defined. Given the potential for significant scope creep, the limits of the study will need to be clearly stated.

In scoping the system requirements, the researchers will:

The researchers will develop the project plan, in consultation with the key stakeholders.

Phase 3: Pilot Study - Development and Design.
The first stage will be to devise the system specifications and build the WWSS. The system will comprise a Web-based portal that contains links to databases containing employer details. Unfortunately, many graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that promote visual enhancements to otherwise textual displays are often boring (Landa, 2001), lack inspiration; consequently do not promote self-confidence. The WWSS will range in sophistication, ensuring that at the top end of the system's tools, it will provide examples of an individual's working day. These video on demand (VOD) (Okamoto, Matsui, Inoue, & Cristea, 2000) simulations will demonstrate the process of getting ready, preparing lunch etc at home, and a number of different example work-place settings. Visual examples such as these will enable an experiential tour-like environment. Moreover these VODs will be designed to enrich a person who may have no prior working experience.

Although the WWSS will be highly visual in terms of providing employment location advice with voice descriptions to enhance the VODs implemented as scaffolding (Peal & Wilson, 2001:150) elements (to segment work-related tasks), there will be a range of other screen display techniques installed such as text and simple pictorial objects. These pictorial objects will also be enhanced to provide a rotating 360o view of working environments.

People construct knowledge about the working world through experiential processing; organising these experiences into knowledge structures, and what is believed about those experiences (Jonassen, Meyers, & McKillop, 1996). In order to provide information about work-place environments in a non-threatening manner, the researchers will draw on educational technology strategies to implement seamless links between the Web-based communications and the WWSS (Rosenberg, 2001). Therefore an important educative feature of the WWSS will be to create the relationship between the (re)-learning of basic work-skills (listening and following instructions), work-communities (social interaction and where to go for more information in the work-place), and work-performance expectations (competency based training). It is anticipated that the simulated work-placement VOD vignettes will work well (Pappo, 2001). This is because the (soft) skills to be conveyed are subtle, and the knowledge associated with them is complex. Many of the vignettes will involve people interacting with other people (like effective listening strategies and simple recall tasks). Simulations work best when the greatest challenge is not acquiring factual knowledge but applying knowledge skills, and beliefs in complex, unique situations (Horton, 2000:569).

Ordinarily people approach their learning in many different modes; some prefer to receive text-based material without pictorial content, while others need to have the opportunity of receiving both (McKay, 2000a). The tendency to rely solely on the graphical image to convey meaning could prove to be a mistake with the WWSS as many people require to trained to read visual messages (McNamara, 1988).

From the outset the system will be designed for easy use, and must be fun. Where possible operation will be through touch screen technology, to reduce the common and understandable apprehension towards using a computer (called computerphobia (Fisher, 1991)). The WWSS will primarily function using a database loaded with employment prospects. The touch screen interfaces will link work place concepts, with an employer database, for locations, positions available, pay-rates etc.

The next stage will be to test and calibrate the WWSS assessment tool. A representative sample of participants will be required for the calibration exercise. This means a small number of people will be required to test the complete system, including the post work search interview and assessment/feedback sessions. This calibration exercise is to maintain the validity of the testing instrumentation. Any weaknesses in the assessment items can be identified during this process. For instance: wrongly worded questions. Alterations can then be made to correct any problems identified.

Phase 4: Implementation of WWSS.
The experiment will be conducted by the authors. The experimental sample will comprise participants involved in vocational rehabilitation programs, in Melbourne, Australia. Each participant will have access to the WWSS for a period of 1-month during which time they will be able to access the WWSS a number of times during the experiment. After this access period, each participant will be interviewed. During this exit type interview, a hardcopy feedback sheet will be generated, forming the basis of data harvested for the quantitative data analysis. It is expected that the data gathering will take approximately 2-3 months.

The research team will conduct feedback sessions, during which representatives from the industry stakeholders and interested experimental research participants will examine the research findings. The objective of this meeting will be to devise strategies that could be adopted by the industry partners to better understand and address the issue of work searching for the intellectually disabled community.

Phase 5: Closure.
The findings of the WWSS will be distributed to the relevant state and federal government funding bodies. Dissemination to the wider industry sector will be through conference presentations and journal publications.

The experiment will be conducted in collaboration with existing agencies offering vocational rehabilitation. Since initiating this research during 2001, McKay reports that the number of identified stakeholders has increased to include enthusiasm from community based agencies, to important self-help organisations.

Summary and future prospects

This paper has identified workforce statistics that highlight a problem in relation to providing appropriate accessibility to employment information and fulfilling the special needs of vocational rehabilitation. A number of problems associated with offering specialist job-seeking tools were briefly discussed. Research takes time, the authors of this paper are cognisant of the care which must be taken to ensure the pursuit for research outcomes includes a safe and non-threatening context.

This customised work searching system has the potential to make a practical contribution to the development of strategies to address a significant human and economic resource problem facing the Australian work force.

The project deliverables will include:


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Authors: Dr Elspeth McKay: Elspeth's doctoral thesis (2000) breaks new ground for effective learning from multimedia with innovative approaches to visual instruction. Her research identified that not all individuals cope effectively with graphical learning. She advocates the importance of using a meta-knowledge process model to inform the design of Web-based instructional systems. Recent projects involve enhanced accessibility design for Web-mediated knowledge development systems.

Dr Jenny Martin: Jenny's doctoral thesis (1995) was in the field of mental health with a comparative study of community and psychiatric hospital treatments. She has both practical and academic experience in the field of mental health. She was a founding member of the North West Community Assessment Treatment Team, as well as having worked in psychiatric in-patient and community mental health settings as a senior clinician.

Please cite as: McKay, E. and Martin, J. (2002). Web-Work-Search-System: Enhanced accessibility. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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