Apr 9, 2024

Unveiling E-Commerce’s Blind Spot: The Urgent Need for Accessibility

Interview with Alan Sleat from Accessibility Services (Shaw Trust) who kindly offered up his time to speak to us about his own experiences living with a disability. 

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 with Alan Sleat from Accessibility Services who are part of the Shaw Trust who kindly offered up his time to speak to us about his experiences working with the Shaw Trust and his own experiences living with a disability. 

Accessibility Services is a charitable enterprise with over 30 years of combined experience in delivering high-quality, professional accessibility services. They are part of the Shaw Trust, which began its life in 1982 in Wiltshire and runs as a national charity supporting over 50,000 people a year throughout the UK and further afield so they can live independent and inclusive lives.

They work with central and local government bodies, private sector companies and charities across the UK and internationally, and use not only automated testing to test accessibility but manual testers who live with a variety of disabilities to accurately test business accessibility to support organisations to create an accessible environment for their staff and customers.

Alan lost his sight halfway through his life when he was 29 through Diabetes. He works as an Accessibility Assessor for the Shaw Trust and is passionate about making websites and businesses more accessible. 

1.87 million people in the UK have sight loss that has a significant impact on their daily lives, according to the RNIB Sight Loss UK 2013 Report. The RNIB also reports that 224,000 people in the UK are living with severe sight loss or blindness. - Shaw Trust 

For someone with a visual impairment, shopping can be a challenging experience. For Alan, when he lost his sight, he was already aware of the town he was in, so he had a visual map in his head of where he needed to go, but he needed some additional support when visiting shops, he had previously been able to navigate independently. He described to me the frustration of going to a store and needing the service desk or some assistance, and it being about 50 metres inside the store, as opposed to at the front door. He could not navigate himself to the service desk, and there were no staff at the entrance to guide him to where he needed to go. 

He explained that even with support from staff in a store, it can take away a person’s independence and choice. They have to ask the staff member for the exact size, colour, and style of a garment instead of just being able to browse and select themselves. In E-Commerce, the person can have that independence and choice they deserve, as long as all the correct infrastructure is in place for people with disabilities. 

Just as you would walk a path through a physical store, looking at the aisles or signs to guide you to where the department is located, so that you could buy a new pair of trousers or shoes, you do the same online shopping even if you are not consciously aware of it. You need to find the right path online to find the right product, add it to your basket and checkout. If you have a visual impairment and are unable to rely on your sight to view these “labels” then you might use a screen reader to assist you in navigating around a website. 

A screen reader uses a Text-To-Speech (TTS) engine to translate on-screen information into speech, which can be heard through earphones or speakers. A TTS may be a software application that comes bundled with the screen reader, or it may be a hardware device that plugs into the computer. - Nomensa

Many visually impaired people use screen readers like Alan does. He explained that he doesn’t use a mouse, since using a mouse requires hand-eye coordination, which is an impossible task for someone who is blind. He instead uses a wide range of keyboard commands to navigate his way through tasks on the web and his computer. 

“The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” Tim Berners-Lee, W2C Director and Inventor of the World Wide Web 

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, commonly referred to as WCAG, are a set of standards that have been internationally developed, to create a single set of guidelines that are recognised by organisations and individuals around the world.

The standards are based around the inclusion of those with disabilities, who require assistive technologies to navigate a website and those who use websites in non-conventional ways due to cognitive impairments or physical disability. Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the guidelines outline several ‘success criteria’, which are at three levels:

A – The minimum level of accessibility has been met.

AA – An acceptable level of accessibility has been met

AAA – A completely accessible website. 

In October 2023, WCAG 2.2 was released and within it, six new compliance guidelines had been added to ensure the continued accommodation of users with low vision and users with disabilities on digital devices, while also catering for users with cognitive or learning disabilities.

Wind & Kite will be delving into accessibility and the main issues in the e-commerce world for someone living with a visual impairment. For businesses wishing to improve their accessibility standards, check back in the coming weeks as we talk more about this. If you want to read more about this see our last blog: how the web is abilist.

Accessibility Services logo