Helpful Search Features on Site for People with Disabilities

The Massachusetts Aging and Disabilities Information Locator (MADIL) provides a simple search interface for thousands of records in disparate databases. This post examines the components of its search tool, and how effective this kind of searching may be for people with cognitive disabilities.  (This is a follow up to my previous post about MADIL’s other features designed to make searching as easy as possible.)

Searching by Text Query

The search tool, located on the home page, works just like the Google search engine upon which its technology is based. The act of entering and submitting a search term is the easy part.  Coming up with effective search terms is much more difficult.  Site visitors have to submit search terms that best define the subject in which they are interested and that match the terminology used in the database records being searched. To obtain the most accurate results, multi-term searche queries have to be constructed, and include filtering operators such as “OR” and “-“.

Constructing A Search Query

If a site visitor wanted to find summer recreation programs for people with intellectual disabilities, but did not want any located in Boston, an effective search query might be:

  • camp -Boston “intellectual disabilities”
    • At the time of this writing, 28 results are produced; searching on just the word “camp” produces more than five times that amount.

So, to construct the above search query, a visitor would at least have to know:

  • camps are popular summer recreation programs;
  • the proper disability term;
  • that multi-word terms should be in quotes; and
  • how to use search-term operators.

All of this knowledge is perhaps beyond the capability of the average user of Google-type searches. For people with cognitive disabilities, the need to construct such a search query may be prohibitive.  Moreover, sorting through search results, particularly the great number produced by poorly-constructed search terms, can be confounding for anyone.

Filtering Search Results

MADIL is constructed to help site visitors with search results.

  • Upon the submission of a search term, results are categorized. For example, the menu of results for the query “advocacy” is pictured below.  Testing has shown categorization of search results is helpful.  However, this is the beginning of seeing search results that are not written in plain language.  People with intellectual disabilities may not know, for instance, that “physician” means “doctor”.

Menu of search results categorized and counted.

  • If a large number of results are displayed, site visitors are prompted to refine their search.  This is useful advice to help site visitors realize their search query could be better, but only if they know how to improve it.
  • Search Tips are provided. Their concrete, simple examples would be useful for site visitors willing and able to experiment with constructing effective search queries.  Ultimately, this may prove too frustrating for people with intellectual / cognitive disabilities.
  • Hundreds of common search terms are set up to trigger helpful tips.  For example, the top of this list of fact sheets related to the search term “housing” shows three such tips.


People who use MADIL do not have to learn to use the different search interfaces of its partners’ Web sites. As can be seen in the list above, MADIL has many features that attempt to make easier the finding of disability-specific resources.  For people with intellectual disabilities, however, MADIL may not be as easy to use as it could be.  I will ponder relevant, possible improvements in future blog posts.