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Blind Online Shoppers Deserve Attention

By Mark W. Vigoroso
Dec 21, 2001 7:32 PM PT

Scrutiny befalls every move that Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) makes. Most pack-leaders must bear this burden.

Blind Online Shoppers Deserve Attention

But Amazon's December 6th decision to make its Web site accessible to the blind can't help but attract applause, and hopefully emulation.

Launching Amazon Access was both a business and ethical decision, the merit of which each company must determine for itself. That said, blind and physically challenged people represent a largely untapped population of Internet users, and they should be approached as a distinct customer base with unique needs.

Not Going Away

More than 1.5 million blind or visually impaired people have access to the Internet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And every year, 75,000 more Americans become blind, according to the National Federation of the Blind.

Accommodating blind people online is analogous to targeting international users, in that unique issues of usability, technology and culture must be considered.

Therefore, in most cases, a separate version of an online retail site is the best way to serve blind and visually impaired shoppers.

Seeing Software

Visually impaired individuals typically experience the Web using screen access software from vendors like GW Micro and Henter-Joyce.

These screen readers translate text on a computer screen into either synthesized speech or a dynamic braille display. To comply with these screen readers, sites aimed at the blind must be largely or entirely text-based. More advanced technologies like Java, Flash and even Web browser frames trip up most screen readers.

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium offers invaluable recommendations for creating content accessible to the blind. Web developers should study these recommendations carefully and be ready to rethink conventions that are commonplace among sighted users.

New Rules

For instance, how many times have you seen "click here" used as hyperlink text? This doesn't convey any significant information to a blind user with a screen reader.

The WAI recommends that link text should be meaningful enough to make sense when read out of context.

Further, navigation conventions -- like redundant links on a single Web page -- must be wholly reconsidered. There's no need, for example, to present links back to "home" on the tops and bottoms of pages. This is simply more text for a screen reader to process and will waste a blind user's time.

Picture Problems

If an e-tailer hopes to use an existing graphics-heavy site to interface with blind customers --rather than launching a separate text-based version -- the WAI recommends that every graphical element have a text equivalent.

That is, every image should have a meaningful "ALT" tag associated with it, for screen readers to interpret.

To adequately address the browsing and shopping needs of blind users, however, it makes sense for online retailers to consider launching a separate site.

Small Wireless World

Some e-tailers may balk at the technological investment this would seem to warrant. But, taking another page from Amazon's playbook, companies should look at their wireless compatibility initiatives.

Many of the streamlined, text-focused requirements of today's wireless devices mirror the basic structural requirements of a blind-accessible site.

Indeed, the Amazon Access Web site is powered by the company's mobile commerce platform, Amazon Anywhere.

Blind Ambitions

Amazon is not the only Web-based company addressing the needs of blind consumers. Job site Monster.com held a Disability Awareness Virtual Career Fair in October, to connect disabled people with potential employers.

And distance learning software provider eCollege recently rolled out a new version of its product that features higher levels of accessibility for blind and disabled people.

Clearly, every Web company must decide for itself how to approach this sensitive issue. But in any case, companies should at least invest the time to understand the distinctive needs of their blind customers.

What do you think? Let's talk about it.

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