‘Checking Out’ Online Shopping For Accessibility


Cyber Monday deals now span an entire week. Black Friday deals begin early Thursdays, and now exist online, too. Truly, the whole shopping game has changed. It seems every week hear about a large retailer restructuring their offerings—whether through closure of physical store locations or expanding their online presence. If online commerce is supposed to make the very act of shopping more accessible by expanding its presence to anyone with an internet connection, then the accessibility for users with disabilities must be factored into that web design.

The Week of Shopping

According to CNBC, sales for the online industry are expected to climb more than 4 percent from a year ago, topping $700 billion. These sales are just for the duration spanning from Black Friday through Cyber Monday. These numbers were derived from an annual holiday and seasonal retail trends survey by the National Retail Federation. These numbers include Cyber Monday in addition to Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Sunday.

Those of us in the disability space know that at the very least, 20% of Americans identify as having a disability, so it’s safe to assume they are well-represented in those statistics derived from the National Retail Federation. Or is it the case? Just how accessible is holiday shopping for consumers with disabilities?

Generally, online shopping provides more opportunities for users with disabilities than brick and mortar locations. As a web accessibility engineer, I’ve seen this firsthand and through accounts from colleagues with disabilities. But this is hardly newsworthy. Americans on average are shifting their shopping habits to occur online. How often do some of us throw our hands in the air at the prospect of navigating a mall’s parking garage to find a parking spot? Wouldn’t it just be easier to order a six-pack of deodorant on Amazon than deal with the checkout lines at the grocery store? For users with disabilities, online shopping increases independence when very often a trip to a physical store–that some of us without disabilities take for granted–can be a different type of undertaking.

But online shopping is not without barriers to access. As more things become increasingly visual in their effort to be user friendly, most of online shopping is done by pictures that may not have alternative text; alternative text is a textual equivalent for anything visual, and describes the content. It can be inaccessible to shop if your only indication of a product is an unlabeled picture. Due to confusing web design, sometimes checkout buttons are hard to locate or product demonstration videos don’t have captions.

Amazing Amazon?

Going back to Amazon, after we’ve restocked our deodorant, it’s impossible to ignore the website’s looming presence on the online marketplace. Amazon’s omnipresence is due to great search engine optimization, shrewd business practice, and its allowing thousands of vendors to use their platform to sell. If you search online for a product, I guarantee an Amazon link will be within the first five to show up.

According to the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), the Amazon website is quite accessible as is, but the company has also extended considerable efforts to make the shopping experience less daunting for screen reader users. Whenever you log onto the main webpage while running a screen reader, you will encounter the following message:

We have recently updated the screen reader optimized website to include headings, landmarks, and new shopping features to improve your experience. Please follow this link or go to www.amazon.com/access.

The accessibility-optimized website does change the way that the website appears visually, but it is more dramatic than that: it changes the interface to be more compatible to assistive technologies like screen readers. Here’s a side by side:



While visually it is ‘less appealing’ to some, the interface is more logical and easily navigated by someone who relies on the keyboard only, or who uses a text-to-speech reader. The Amazon app, while not 100% accessible, is one of the leading examples of app accessibility for a store of its magnitude.

What Next?

While I can delve into other stores and their shopping experience, it’s necessary this holiday season whether selling or shopping, to think about the buying experience. Looking at all facets, like browsing, trying on, creating a shopping cart, and checking out, there is no express lane. Our best suggestion to online sellers is to have a robust customer service platform, and a bit of holiday cheer. For users with disabilities, making helpful recommendations via customer service or social media on what can make your shopping experience better can help you out, but also help others who face similar barriers.

Give the gift of accessibility this year, and best wishes for a season of inclusion.

Sharon Rosenblatt is an accessibility professional and advocate working to improve the overall web experience by a user with disabilities. With her tendency to be ‘hands on’, Sharon feels that accessibility is a human right, and not a ‘nice to have’. She has been a part of the Accessibility Partners team for the past six years, and specializes in document remediation and web/softwarecompliance testing. Her efforts have enabled developers and manufacturers to see the tremendous potential that accessibility has not just for users with disabilities, but of all abilities.

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