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.

Finding & Understanding Web Info: Considerations for People with CD

How can a search tool be created that is easy to use by people with cognitive disabilities, and indeed by everyone?  How can search results be designed and written to be understood by the widest audience?  Considerations related to these questions are the subjects of this- and the next several blog posts.

So far, in my interviews of people with intellectual disabilities, I have been told that finding relevant information on the Web is difficult.  This is true for many people.  How can searching be made easier for the kind of content that would be of interest to people with cognitive disabilities?  Well, I know of one effort to make finding such information easier for people with disabilities in general.

Example Web Site: MADIL

The Massachusetts Aging and Disabilities Information Locator (MADIL) is a good Web site to review because it is designed to provide a simple search interface for thousands of records in disparate databases.  It is a single point of entry to the Web sites of its partners (listed on the MADIL home page).  All contain disability-specific information for people residing in Massachusetts.

In this post and the next, I describe the MADIL features created to make searching as easy as possible, and how effective they may be for people with cognitive disabilities.


MADIL meets the accessibility standards of the time (2007) I created it.  It does not have ones intended specifically for people with cognitive disabilities.  Such features, with which I will experiment on the future Clear Helper Web site, include options for easy- and standard versionstext-to-speech; and plain-language content.

Directory of Resources

MADIL has “Quick Guides”, which are categorized sets of links to resource Web sites.  They were set up to be used by site visitors who find MADIL’s search tool to be difficult to use, or who want to find resources grouped by subject matter.  That’s good for people with cognitive disabilities. The Quick Guides home page, pictured below, also has a couple features that are good for people with cognitive disabilities.

  1. Its first link is to a list of phone numbers site visitors can call for help. This means they can receive personalized assistance determining which resources are relevant.  They don’t have to rely upon coming up with effective search terms or figure out the often complicated terminology and acronyms inherent to the resulting information.
  2. It uses contextually-relevant images for each link (although I now realize they are too small). Such imagery can help visitors grasp the meaning of the associated content.

Quick Guides home page: list of categorized links with relevant images

Content In Languages Other Than English

MADIL has a translation feature based on Google technology, which enables searching and results in languages other than English. This does make content more available to a wider audience.  Unfortunately, even the best of readers will find that it is good enough only to grasp the gist of the content. People with cognitive disabilities, who speak languages other than English, will thus not find this feature compelling.

Next Up: Search Tool

MADIL’s primary interface element is a text- based search tool. An analysis of its components will be the subject of my next blog post.

Tutorial Suggestions from a Self Advocate & a Person with ID

I met today with Anne, a self advocate, a co-founder of Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong (MASS), and a person who uses the Web daily.  Anne is also a person with an intellectual disability.

Popular Request

When I started working with Anne to resolve some issues with her computer, the very first action she asked me to take was to increase its font size.  This is a common request amongst other people with intellectual disabilities.

Increasing a computer’s font size will be the subject of the first tutorial for the future Clear Helper Web site. I could set up the site so it auto-detects the operating system of a visitor’s computer and displays the relevant instructions.  This would be more useful than asking visitors to choose a set of instructions based upon which operating system they use.  Many people do not know what an operating system is, let alone which version their computers use.

Anne’s Suggestions for Tutorials

For future tutorials, Anne suggested instructions on how to:

  • increase the font size of operating systems and/or Web browsers;
  • save for future use the Web site links sent via e-mail;
  • save files, such as attachments, into folders; and
  • find the contact information for state legislators.

Note: The last suggestion is one Anne has in common with Mary, another self advocate I interviewed.


Anne also asked me to show her how to find information using The Massachusetts Aging and Disabilities Information Locator (MADIL). I designed the site to meet accessibility standards of the time. However, it has become clear to me it is not as accessible as it could be for people with intellectual disabilities.  Its purpose and how I might improve its accessibility will be the subjects of a future blog post.

Readable Tool Better Than One David Pogue Says Is Best Tech Idea Of 09

Readability is a free Web-browser bookmarklet that strips all distractions from Web pages. David Pogue, the personal-technology columnist for The New York Times, called it the “… single best tech idea of 2009 …” and a “… real life-changer …”.

Pogue, D. (2009-12-31). The Pogie Awards for the Year’s Best Tech Ideas. New York Times. Retrieved from

It is indeed a promising tool.  Yet, as I pointed out in my review of Readability, it has a significant problem. For many Web pages I tested, it could not determine which was the main text content, or it displayed only a snippet of it.

Readable (created by Gabriel Coarna)

Readable, also a free Web-browser bookmarklet, includes the same configuration features, has more of them, and has a feature that solves Readability’s problem.  If Readable can not determine a page’s main text content, it enables users to identify the text they want to read.  A user holds down the Control (Ctrl) key, selects the text with the mouse, and clicks it.  Readable then shows that text free of extraneous content. (Instructions are on the “Tutorial” page.)

Readable can be used with Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera and Internet Explorer.


Conveying Abstract Concepts of Easy- & Standard Web Site Versions

I have been struggling with how to convey to people with intellectual disabilities the abstract concepts of easy- and standard Web site versions.  At the time of this writing, the experimental Clear Helper Web site has text links of “Easy” and “Standard” to switch between versions.

How do I make these choices more concrete for people?  I have two ideas.  Each involves a set of buttons that visually represent the two versions.  Perhaps the text links could be replaced by their respective buttons.  Alternatively, they could bring users to a page that contains the buttons and explains the other accessibility features of the Web site.

Wireframe Buttons

Displayed below is my first attempt at wireframe buttons.  The “Standard” button shows rectangular outlines of its version’s sections: header, primary-content column, sidebar and footer.  The “Easy” button shows an outline for its version’s only section, that of primary content.

button showing single, large box and 'Easy' text labelbutton showing rectangular outlines of page sections and 'Standard' text label

Screen-Shot Buttons

Because the wireframe buttons may themselves be too abstract, a better way of representing the two versions might be to use screen-shot buttons for them.  Displayed below are scaled-down screen shots of the standard- and the easy versions of the Clear Helper home page as it is now.  Each is accompanied by an explanatory caption.

screen shot of easy home page version
Click this picture to see only the main part of this Web site's pages
screen shot of standard home page version
Click this picture to always see all parts of this Web site's pages

It is likely that I will create sample Web sites using each of these methods, and will ask people which they find the easiest to understand.


This is a follow-up to these previous blog posts:

Proposed Navigation Buttons For Future Clear Helper Web Site: Draft 2

Displayed below is my second attempt at a set of navigation buttons for the future Clear Helper Web site.  They were created using the guidelines and tests discussed in my post about the first draft of two sample buttons.  I am open to constructive criticism and/or suggestions for alternative versions.

Each button will appear on a page only if relevant. For instance, if the succeeding page is for a tutorial, the following three buttons will appear as content options.  They are intended to represent the content versions of text; pictures and text; and video.

VideoTextPictures and Text

The following two buttons, for back and next, will appear, for instance, only if tutorials have multiple pages.


The home page button, below, will appear on every page.


Upcoming buttons will include two for switching styles from “Standard” to “Easy”.  I have an idea for how to represent these concepts in a concrete way.  That will be the subject of a future post.

“Easy Read” Web Site for People with Intellectual Disabilities: A Review

The Newham Easy Read Web site is intended for young people with intellectual disabilities transitioning from school.  From its copyright statement, it appears The Rix Centre designed it.

General Accessibility

The site’s accessibility statement claims compliance with WCAG-AA guidelines.  I used a couple automated accessibility-checkers on a few randomly-chosen pages.  Compliance was indicated.  Much of the site’s design is intended to make it accessible and usable by people with intellectual disabilities.

Visual Design

The site’s template is bright with lots of imagery.  Its layout is fairly simple.  The top part of the home page is pictured below.

Newham home page. Large banner at top. Links column on left.

The pages’ primary-content area features a well-spaced choice list.  Each is represented by:

  • a large, contextually-relevant photograph or cartoon, which also serves as a linked button; (Hovering the cursor over a photographic button highlights its border.  I’m not sure of the utility of that.)
  • a link using text typically short and to the point; and
  • a “listen” button that plays an audio file of a person briefly summarizing the linked content; (I found the quality of the recordings to be mixed.  Some had a lot of static or other background noises.)

Note: There is a glaring oversight on the home page. In its primary-content section, neither the photographic buttons nor the link text can be clicked to advance to subsequent pages.

On the left of the site’s pages, there is a column of links to its sections.  Links are accompanied by a small, contextually-relevant photograph or cartoon, and by a short statement on the number of links to be found in each section.  This is a nice feature that indicates how much content each section contains.

Several links open other Web sites.  This is hidden by a Newham Easy Read frame.  The frame provides some consistency in the look and feel, but its function is purely cosmetic.


Navigation through the site is accomplished via the column of links and by a breadcrumb menu at the tops of pages.  There is a basic site map that can be reached by a link at the bottoms of the pages.  There is also a site search feature, but it does not work well.  For instance, entering the word “accessibility” does not produce a link to the site’s accessibility statement.


There is no information, at least that I could find, about what makes the site’s text easy to read.  Pages generally have a few short sentences matched with large photographs.  Oddly, it is the home page that probably has the longest sentences, including one run-on.  This does not make for a good first impression on the nature of how easy the site’s text is to read.

Much of the site’s text, particularly for navigation, is tiny.  The current accessibility recommendation for people with cognitive disabilities is to use a large font size by default.

The site’s accessibility page refers to a text-enlarging readability menu on the right side of every page.  Unfortunately, there is no such menu on the right side of every page.  The accessibility page does have instructions on how to use the keyboard to increase font size.  However, the instructions themselves use the tiniest font size on the entire site!


In sum, it is obvious the designers incorporated accessibility- and usability features for people with intellectual disabilities.  It is equally obvious that much work has to be done to make the site work better for them and for all visitors.

Writing “easy” text is not so easy

Today, I tested the readability of the “easy” text for the home page of the Clear Helper Web site.  I decided to use Standard-Schmandard’s Readability Index Calculator because of the trouble I reported in my post, “Juicy Studio Readability Test: Contradictory Results“.

I entered the home page’s easy text and chose the Flesch-Kincaid (English) test. Results:

  • Grade level: 13
  • Reading Ease score: 44

The Grade Level score indicates a person would have to reach the 13th grade (in the U.S.) to understand the text. The Reading Ease score, for which higher means easier, fell in between comics (score = 90) and legalese (score = below 10) according to Standards Schmandards.  I was disappointed the text I wrote scored so poorly.

I then removed all three-syllable words.  Results:

  • Grade level: 11
  • Reading Ease score: 55

These were still not the scores for which I was hoping.  I’m having a difficult time finding information on which levels of scores would be good for people with intellectual disabilities, but I know even the last set are too high.

My next step is to attempt to simplify the text, then try another readability test.  Results will be posted.

Note: This is a follow-up to the post, “Switching Between Standard- & Plain Language Versions: 1st Attempt“.

Switching Between Standard- & Plain Language Versions: 1st Attempt

I created a plain-language version of the Clear Helper home page.  It displays “standard” text.  Clicking the link “Easy” at the top, right of the home page displays the plain-language version.  The image below shows the menu.

Home Page Menu with choices Easy, Skip to content, Need big text?

Technical Method

This is my first attempt at creating a plain-language version.  I focused on accomplishing it technically.  This is a follow-up to my previous post, “Using Plain Language for People with Cognitive Disabilities: Discussion, Example“.

The method I used to create two language versions of the same page is to include all of the text content in it, but hide from the user one version or the other depending upon which the user selects.  I used the CSS “display” property with a value of “none” for this purpose.


It may be more efficient to use a database-driven system that stores and displays the content depending upon user selection.  There are content-management systems (CMS) specifically designed to create accessible pages and that have accessible content-management interfaces.  One such example is Webcredible’s Accessible CMS.


I did make a few improvements to the page-version switcher I described in my post “2 Accessible Versions, 1 for People with CD: Rough Draft In Action“.  I:

  • changed two menu choice labels, one from “Simple” to “Easy” and the other from “Regular” to “Standard”;
  • set the menu so that, rather than displaying both of those menu choices, it shows “Easy” on the standard version and “Standard” on the easy / plain-language version;
  • placed the accessible text-to-speech (TTS) player for both versions in the same place, so people will always know where to look for it, and at the bottom of the page where it would not cause initial distraction; and
  • created a MP3 audio narration of the plain-language version.

Next Steps

In future posts, I will publish the results of:

  • checking if screen readers or search engines have trouble with a page containing two versions of content but displaying one; (I suspect not.)
  • running a readability checker on the “easy” text, and determining if it meets plain-language guidelines; and
  • investigating whether or not Webcredible’s Accessible CMS or one of its competitors has the capability to switch between two content versions of the same page.

Behavior Modification to Teach People with ID How to Access Web Sites

A research study was published in 2007 that used behavior modification to teach people with autism and intellectual disabilities how to access Web sites.  After training, participants (N = 3) were able to access specific Web sites independently.

Breakdown of Task

“The following 13-step task analysis was conducted to develop the requisite skills necessary to access a specific Web site:
  1. Press the computer power button.
  2. Press the monitor power button.
  3. Place hand on the mouse.
  4. Move the cursor with the mouse until it points to the Internet Explorer® icon.
  5. Double click the Internet Explorer® icon.
  6. Move the cursor with the mouse to the Google® search box.
  7. Left click in the box.
  8. Type in the search topic of interest.
  9. Place hand back on mouse.
  10. Move cursor to the box labeled ‘search.’
  11. Single click the box.
  12. Move the cursor with the mouse down to the Web site of choice.
  13. Single click the Web site of choice.”

Note: Steps 12 & 13 should say “Web site link”.


To teach these steps, the behavior-modification techniques of backward chaining, errorless learning, and most-to-least intrusive prompting were used. After completion of each step, whether prompted or unprompted, participants received edible items as a form of immediate reinforcement.  Participants were also given five minutes of their preferred Internet activity after the completion of the last step.


Subsequent to training, the three participants were able to complete all thirteen steps independently.  They were also able to take the skills they had learned on the test computer, and apply them to a different computer.


I am keenly interested in teaching people with intellectual disabilities how to use the Web.  They can not if they don’t know the first thing about it.  This research study taught people the rudiments.

My interest in it coincides with the intended purpose of the initial tutorials to be presented on the future Clear Helper Web site: to teach people with intellectual disabilities how to use the Web, specific Web sites, and/or features of them.  Because the tutorials will be entirely Web based, the level of training used in this research study will not occur.  The consequential indication is that people who require such training may not be able to take advantage of the Clear Helper tutorials.  It is a disappointing reality.


Jared Jerome, Eric P. Frantino, & Peter Sturmey (2007). The effects of errorless learning and backward chaining on the acquisition of internet skills in adults with developmental disabilities.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 40, 185-189.  Retrieved from of the article.