The ACCESS Main Street Search System

The Challenge:

Designers throughout the United States and the world have created helpful resources about universal design, such that resources pertaining universal design are plentiful and rapidly increasing, and their scope continues to widen. They span the physical built environment and the information environment (such as the World Wide Web). Furthermore, universal design resources are written for differing audiences such as designers, webmasters, architects, and administrators.

The Approach:

We have designed ACCESS Main Street to organize this broad set of information and to coalesce a scattered and fragmented set of topics into common cognitive approaches. It is the aim of ACCESS Main Street to distill the most relevant and useful accessibility and universal design resources on the Internet into a focused collection of applicable tools and information, in contrast to the conglomeration of miscellaneous data that result from conventional searches.

At the heart of ACCESS Main Street website are the entries in our database which consist of downloadable resources and links to web pages elsewhere on the Internet. Each of these database entries has been evaluated and thoughtfully described; each has been coded for relevance to specific aspects of the community or facets of universal design; and each has been categorized by type, by application, and by connection to community areas and buildings. Lists of entries, whether displayed on ACCESS Main Street pages or in search results, allow previewing a resource before moving to a new website or downloading a file. Visitors can readily perceive whether an entry describes a downloadable resource or external website: it is described by an annotation; its source or sponsoring organization is listed; if it has a user rating, the rating is displayed and a link to comments is provided.

The website design includes features—from the organization of pages to the search function itself—that exploit additional data associated with every link and resource. For example:

  • A typical search for words or phrases can reliably retrieve relevant entries because every entry is enhanced with coded keywords. Furthermore, the list of results can be filtered or sorted by relevance to the visitor's interest or role in the community.
  • On every ACCESS Main Street page, the left navigation links provide a hierarchy of topics and resources for direct access to information.
  • The ACCESS Main Street website offers a Virtual Community on a primary page of the site so an inquirer can “look around” to view it by buildings and functions.
  • In addition, a Google-powered search of the entire ACCESS Main Street site permits retrieval of information from every ACCESS Main Street page.

It took me several years of struggling with the heavy door to my building, sometimes having to wait until a person stronger came along, to realize that the door was an accessibility problem, not only for me, but for others as well. And I did not notice, until one of my students pointed it out, that the lack of signs that could be read from a distance at my university forced people with mobility impairments to expend a lot of energy unnecessarily, searching for rooms and offices. Although I have encountered this difficulty myself on days when walking was exhausting to me, I interpreted it, automatically, as a problem arising from my illness (as I did with the door), rather than as a problem arising from the built environment having been created for too narrow a range of people and situations.

Susan Wendell, author of
The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability