Online shops need to ramp up disabled access

Nick Booth

online shopping 300x225 Online shops need to ramp up disabled access

(Getty Images)

You’d think that online shopping would be a boon to the disabled and a great leveler. But no, in an odd way people with disabilities are more discriminated against online than in a bricks and mortar shop.

Perhaps it’s because the iniquities of access are more obvious in a shop. Even the worst tax-avoiding corporations are sociable (or legally compliant) enough to provide ramps and parking spaces. But in cyberspace, nobody can see you discriminate. Unless they are familiar with the Equality Act of 2010. This act has been in force since 2011 but there are still many retailers whose shopping technology does not comply with it.

For example, Section 20.1.1 legislates that online shops have to provide easily legible text so that the visually impaired are not handicapped in the race to bag online bargains. And yet patterned backgrounds are remarkably common on e-tail sites.

Online shops could do a lot more to help the visually impaired without too much work. Speech synthesisers, that read out text, cost practically nothing. If you take the trouble to attribute text to describe images, this can be read out to the online shopper. Descriptive hyperlinks don’t take a massive amount of effort.

It might be the case that the shopper doesn’t want everyone to hear what they are thinking of buying, which is going to happen if their computer reads out a description of everything their mouse hovers over. But that only affects people who shop online when they’re at work.

There are methods of tagging that can ensure you provide all the descriptive information that can be translated and broadcast through a Braille keyboard.

The Equality Act legislation came in two years ago and so far no big cases have come to court where a company was shamed for its discriminatory procedures. The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) has already pursued two cases which were settled out of court and resulted in the remodeling of the offending e-tailer’s web sites. But it could only be a matter of time before there is a high profile test case.

The RNIB even runs a scheme, Ability Net, to help companies test their programmes before they launch their ecommerce sites. A cynic might argue that this alone was worth going through, as it gives a company a nice badge it can put on its web site, which is great branding for hardly any effort.

So, ethical shoppers, how do you reward an ethical site with your patronage – and how you spot a company that needs boycotting into compliance?

The BBC sets a good example. Note how it gives plenty of visual options and offers simple text. It makes sense to load uploads of descriptions anyway, if you want search engines to find your site). The uncomplicated design makes for faster downloading too. Which brings us to the unfriendly sites.

Any site based on Flash is going to be questionable. Few sites with Flash-based video content will be disabled user friendly. Look out for companies that skimp on the descriptive text.

“The legislation is two years old and as lawyers we’d say [vendors] should have this on [their] radar,” says Natalie Salunke, head of legal at ecommerce company Venda. ‘The irony is that retail technology should help the disabled, but they’re actually marginalised.”

Tagged in: , , , , , , , ,
  • rongraves

    I’m disabled, I have a visual impairment, and for years I have shopped exclusively online. I simply do not recognise the experience described above. I can’t recall, either, when I last saw a site based on Flash video – that bubble has long since burst.

    As for ” Speech synthesisers, that read out text, cost practically nothing.” that’s garbage (and depends on one’s concept of “nothing”). True, if you’re happy with a very, very, basic robotic voice, there are freebies available. If you want anything resembling normal human speech it’s going to cost you.

    And please, try getting a disabled journalist, or blogger, to write on disability subjects – we do have the specialised knowledge, you know, and there are a lot of us.

  • John Thornton

    Harshly calling for your head over this?

    Hating you so much by only referring to you in the third person?

    Jeez man! Don’t you think you might be over-reacting and being a tad paranoid?

    one accused you of “causing offence”. You were just out of your league
    and got it wrong. There is no law (thankfully) to stop a straight white
    male writing an article about BME lesbian feminist issues. But if he
    gets his facts (or terminology) wrong, he should take constructive
    criticism on the chin and not bleat on that he’s being attacked and that
    people are calling for his head. Likewise for non-disabled people
    writing about disability and accessibility issues.

    I referred to
    you in the third person because, as a journalist dating back to the
    olden days of hot lead, I was taught that it was the correct – and
    polite – form in editorials and, preferably, in Letters to the Editor. I
    assumed the Independent comments section took on a similar polite form.
    This time, apparently, I got it wrong (although I’m unsure why). I
    could apologise for politely referring to you in the third person and as
    Mr Booth and say “I am sorry if I have offended you, it was not my
    intention”. But I believe that would be insincere and pampering to your

    As for Gina Sharp’s comment “Seeing as Nick was merely
    trying to be helpful I can’t quite understand the attacks here. By all
    means set him straight but why be so aggressive about it?” Gina, have
    you ever stood beside the kerb holding your white cane and assistance
    dog and be grabbed by the arm and frog-marched over a road you didn’t
    want to cross by someone who was “merely trying to be helpful”? Or,
    sitting in your wheelchair manoeuvring an awkward curve when someone
    grabs the chair handles and pushes you straight into the furniture,
    banging your feet, knees and trapping your fingers in the wheel spokes
    because they were “merely trying to be helpful”?

    No? If you can
    not identify with scenarios such as this, perhaps that is why you don’t
    understand the criticism Nick Booth has been given. The days of being
    “merely trying to be helpful” i.e. charitable, towards disabled people
    should be over by now. Instead of “help” most disabled people of this
    age try to ask for “assistance” i.e. we ask you to follow our instructions and
    we ask you NOT to assume that you know what’s best for us! And,
    instead of charity, we ask for our dignity and our independence to be
    respected and our expertise to be valued.

    But I don’t understand
    why you use emotional terms like “attacks” and “aggressive”. Where were
    the attacks? What was aggressive? Admittedly, as a seasoned
    journalist and blunt Yorkshireman I tend to lack the well-honed skills
    of sychophancy used in the realms of public relations, but I believe we
    were dispassionate in making criticism of his writing and setting him

    And I make no apologies for being a blunt Yorkshireman either! :)

Most viewed



Property search
Browse by area

Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter