Apr 22, 2024

Beyond Sight: Tearing Down Digital Walls for Partially Sighted Users

Interview with Alan Sleat from Accessibility Services (Shaw Trust) who kindly offered up his own time to speak to us about his own struggles with how alt text and labels are used in e-commerce

It’s frustrating because it's not impossible. All the tools are in the toolbox, but they aren’t being used. It's like grabbing the first tool out of the box to solve a problem. Yes, you can hit a nail into a wall using a spanner, but a hammer would be better suited” - Alan Sleat, talking with Wind & Kite on accessibility 

Wind & Kite spoke to Alan Sleat from Shaw Trust about his experiences with accessibility on websites as he navigates the web as someone living with a visual impairment.

Alternative text, referred to as alt text, is descriptive text of a graphic to explain what it is. For example, for a question mark icon, we might have an alt text of ‘question mark icon’. 

Labels explain the purpose of something. For example, in a form, we might have a label of ‘First Name’ next to a box for this content to go into.

Alan explained that whilst using websites, he relies heavily on the labels and alt text used to navigate through a site to find the correct information he requires, in a similar way as to someone reading road signs and looking at a map to navigate through a town. Alan had given a physical example of poor labelling in one of his blog posts, of arriving at a junction, and the only road signs, stating "go there" or "over here" as opposed to "turn left for x town" etc. Therefore, if a website has failed to provide sufficient alt text to its graphics or hasn’t labelled links correctly, then a user can't navigate through the site using their screen reader to find the correct information or page they need.  

For example, Alan told me about a site he visited for personal shopping and was greeted by a page of 10 graphics all with the alt text “products” with no other distinguishing details. When this page was viewed by someone who had no visual impairment, it was clear to see that each graphic related to a product type such as “women’s wear”, “men’s wear” etc, but for Alan and his screenreader it was impossible to navigate through and therefore that company lost business from Alan and undoubtedly many others, as a result. 

The solution to this problem is for developers and owners to consider how a user moves through a site, and what visual cues they can physically see, to transfer that data to written descriptions using alt text. For example, instead of having the word “product”, define who the product is targeted for, such as “women’s jumpers”.

In 2023, 97.4% of homepages had accessibility errors, with missing alt text accounting for 61% of all homepage accessibility errors. - Tanya Hidderley,

For Alan on his screenreader, as he navigates through a page again and again he hears the words ‘Click Here’. This phrase is used as a quick-fix buzzword, but it provides the user no reference as to what this refers to. For users using screen readers, it is incredibly frustrating to hear the term “click here” whilst trying to navigate around a website, as it provides no context whatsoever. It should also be noted that for able-bodied people it also has no real function and provides little assistance to them.

“The use of the button ‘click here’ is actually bad for usability, accessibility and search engine optimization” (

Instead of ‘click here’, what should be used is descriptive text directing the user to where they need to go, eg: “click here to speak to us”. 

Alt text failings have also been found on many websites, where the business is offering discounts, especially in the more recent years when the UK is facing a time of austerity, shops are offering deals to assist people with the cost of living crisis, whilst also trying to stand out from the crowd.  Quite often these will be displayed on websites as a banner or graphic, with a clear description of the discount set within the graphic shown as an image stating “money off if you spend X amount”. For users using screen readers, quite often the alt text related to that image is lacking, with either no description at all or perhaps something as mocking as a “discount banner” with no information about how the user can access the deal. 

This means that quite often users with disabilities are unwittingly paying more for items or being prevented from accessing the best possible prices for products, and that's as discriminatory as it comes. 

Shaw Trust Accessibility Services