Sunday, March 15, 2015

Do you want to know about a Blind Girl’s Online Retail Experience?

I am talking about Amy here – not any fictional character. She likes to call herself a blind chick because she is young and blind. She is actually getting married in a week to Dave who is also visually impaired.  Amy is funny, full of life, always smiling and talks with lot of passion about her online retail experience which is definitely not great.
Online Shopping gives her privacy, dignity and makes her feel more independent.  The Online retail experience is a very broken experience for her today but she remains hopeful.  
There is just no bitterness in her about it. Amy was recently stuck in Boston during a snowstorm for many days and wanted to do most of her wedding shopping online but had a hard time doing it. According to her, “Most of the time it is almost like going to a car dealership when you don’t know how to drive.”  Unfortunately, many times she is forced to talk to customer service representatives! Sometimes she is asked if she could find someone else to do her online shopping! How fair is that?
Amy also gives examples of websites like and who provide a great experience to people with disabilities.

There are millions of people in USA and all over the world who have blindness or very low vision; are hearing impaired; have mobility-dexterity challenges; have speech difficulties or have various cognitive disorders.  
Due to modern miracles of medicines impacting longevity, we have an aging population who are likely to develop many of these symptoms. The Web is almost 25 years old and there is a whole generation of us, including millions of people with disabilities, who grew up with World Wide Web. Sir Tim Berner Lee, the inventor of the web, always envisioned a web that is truly for EVERYONE and is accessible to all and one that empowers all of us to achieve our dignity, rights and potential as humans. He also felt that it was very important to keep the balance between commercial and social needs of the web.
So where did we go wrong? How could we have such a big miss?
Web accessibility is an area that needs serious work by all of us. The laws like Section 508, American Disability Act, Section 255 and others are not very clear and are interpreted differently by companies. Government/Federal, Non-profit and University websites are more compliant than the commercial organizations because they have to be section 508 compliant in order to exist – basically they have no choice. Many people consider WCAG 2.0 standard by W3C very hard to implement and also  very blind centric. Some of the commercial companies have begun becoming accessible but most have a long way to go. Lawsuits in the web accessibility space have increasingly become more prevalent. But in addition to legal concerns, the focus on user experience is equally important from accessibility perspective.
The ecosystem for web accessibility has developed in last decade but we are just not there yet. Today, you have screen readers like JAWS, NVDA and Apple voiceover to help out visually impaired people. Wordspace from Deque Systems can help you in auditing your website. Accessibility management tools like SSB Bart, Audioeye, Amaze Deque and IBM Browse Out Loud help in management aspects of web accessibility.  According to web accessibility practitioners, eighty percent of the responsibility still lies with website operators even if you buy any of the assistive technologies or related tools. Website owners need to create environment that is more conducive to their content authors, developers, designers, testers, project managers as well as agencies.
Most of the online retailers are unaware about the number of disabled people visiting their website or the type of disability they have. Besides the impact to their conscience, they may be missing financial opportunities. People with disabilities have increasingly become very web savvy, and they love their smart devices like all of us. According to, iphones are more popular than Androids devices among people who describe themselves as disabled.  If you are interested in more survey results then please go to
Companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, IBM and have taken web accessibility very seriously and are ahead of the curve than others. BBC is considered a gold standard in the web accessibility area. IBM has even appointed a Chief Accessibility Officer recently.  Over the last few years, AT&T  increased focus in the web accessibility and are leading in the telecom space. Target, after settling an accessibility lawsuit, has the most interesting turnaround in this area. They have ramped up their team  and  are very proud of what they have achieved so far. In the end, it is not that hard and like any successful initiative in any organization, it needs executive sponsorship and commitment at all levels.
If you are an online retailer then the first step is to recognize your shortcomings in this area and make a very serious and focused effort to fix web accessibility. Enabling accessibility on your website is not about building a feature but is more about right processes, culture, training, tools and discipline.
To be successful, you will need to build a team and culture to embrace accessibility. You will have to increase awareness and do training  to make it part of your processes. Automation is key to accessibility so you will have to start thinking in terms of accessible components and issue automatic test failures where possible.
Winston Churchill, rightly said, "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

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