It's harder than ever for the visually impaired to shop online — here's how retailers can make their digital presence more accessible

It's harder than ever for the visually impaired to shop online — here's how retailers can make their digital presence more accessible
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  • The visually impaired are struggling to shop online independently during the pandemic due to visual barriers and inaccessible user experiences.
  • Generic product descriptions, unhelpful images, and an aesthetically pleasing user experience to the average eye aren't compatible with the assistive technologies used by the visually impaired.
  • When these images and text fail to work with screen readers, screen magnifiers, and other technologies, important details are lost.
  • While many online stores outsource expertise and comply with basic accessibility requirements, experts said inclusion needs to be considered from the beginning and in "the DNA of the brand."
  • "A lack of these fundamental things are literal barriers to visually-impaired people, and it perpetuates the very damaging stereotypes that fashion isn't for us and that disabled people can't be fashionable," Abi James-Miller, a visually-impaired filmmaker based in the UK, told Business Insider.

If anything has increased in recent months, besides the amount of people working and learning from home, it's online shopping.

Research released in March by retailer ecommerce platform Mercatus indicated that new accounts opened in online stores increased by 1,200% from the previous year. Global ecommerce sales increased by 31% in June, up from 23% in April and May, while Walmart, among other retailers, reported impressive ecommerce earnings in Q2, emphasizing the long-term growth of online retail as shoppers remain wary of in-store purchasing.

While shopping online has its advantages, the barriers that many of these platforms, especially those in the fashion industry, present to the visually impaired make an already difficult task nearly impossible for many people to perform independently.

Barriers for the visually impaired include vague product descriptions and inaccessible site layouts

When shopping in stores, factors such as the texture of the clothing or custom descriptions by store clerks are often crucial in helping visually-impaired shoppers choose items that not only look but feel good. Online this experience gets lost and is often replaced by generic product descriptions, unhelpful images, and a user experience that, while pleasing to the average eye, doesn't typically accommodate the assistive technologies used by the visually impaired.

The most common assistive technologies used by visually impaired people to access information are screen readers, which are applications that verbalize everything on the screen except images that lack alternative text, and screen magnifiers, which allow those with remaining vision to interact with the information by making the contents larger. When images are not described, site controls lack text, or the text is in an image, interaction with these types of technologies becomes difficult, if not impossible.


"The barriers I face when accessing fashion come down to websites being incompatible with my screen reader or magnification software and worst of all, a lack of descriptive descriptions to describe in detail what the item is, patterns, fit, and what items could go with it," Abi James-Miller, a visually-impaired filmmaker based in the UK, told Business Insider. "A lack of these fundamental things are literal barriers to visually-impaired people, and it perpetuates the very damaging stereotypes that fashion isn't for us and that disabled people can't be fashionable," she added.

"The stores think that the pictures are enough, but they're not," said visually-impaired Brooke Wright, from Minnesota. "Because of COVID, I sometimes send photos to my sighted friends of things I want to buy so they can give me their opinion," she added.

The way clothes are described is also often a problem for Wright. In many cases, she only knows what kind of clothes she's buying — whether they're pants or a top, for example — but misses the more important details.

Product descriptions also tend to be used as marketing tools and are designed to make the product more appealing to the buyer.

"There have been some occasions where what I received was not what I thought I was ordering at all due to a misleading or poor description of the item," said Fern Lulham, a visually-impaired blogger and BBC broadcaster based in East Sussex. "One particular time it was not clear what size the item was, so what I thought was a pretty good bargain for a picture I could put on my wall turned out to be a fairly extortionate key ring." Despite these problems, Lulham said she tries her best to shop online because of the risks involved in buying in person and the search advantages it offers. Accessibility problems, however, mean that her options are reduced.


The barriers to accessing many online stores when you're visually impaired go beyond product descriptions. Things as simple as site organization and correct use of labels can make all the difference.

Jesús Pavón, a visually-impaired accessibility consultant at Ilunion TYA, a consulting company that audits companies and helps them to make their websites more accessible, told Business Insider that online, you're likely to find unlabeled form fields that screen readers can't decipher and prevent the visually impaired from filling in basic data, such as their personal information, to open an account.

"Contrast problems also prevent people with remaining vision from distinguishing the elements of the website," Pavón said.

"Due to the fact that I have enlarged icons on my phone in order to see them, it can sometimes mean that I miss certain options because they get covered up by other things," Lulham said, adding that in some cases this problem is so huge that she can't even complete the payment process. "Online stores who were so close to getting my money miss out because I cannot complete my purchase and give up — which is a disadvantage both for the store and for me," she said.

Accessible on paper, but not in practice

Miller said that many online stores say they recognize the importance of providing a website that's accessible to all user groups, but in many cases "their version of inclusivity only runs surface deep, ticking a box for the bigwigs at the top and placating our well-meaning disabled allies."


A common practice is for stores to outsource accessibility to outside companies like Ilunion. These companies, in addition to ensuring that the process of verifying accessibility is transparent and independent, are also specifically dedicated to site accessibility, which can mean more focused attention to issues that may be encountered. Because they often have people with disabilities in their staff, they also make sure that things actually work well.

Compliance with basic accessibility requirements, which are usually taken into account when deciding whether a website is ADA compliant, is an important foundation for any online company, but isn't the only thing that should be taken into account, experts said.

"The legal requirements for digital accessibility are an excellent starting point for organizations, but they don't cover many things that make a website usable to people who live with a wide variety of disabilities (not just low vision and blindness)," said Lynn Wehrman, president of WeCo Accessibility services, an accessibility consulting company that maintains a team of testers who live with cognitive, hearing, mobility, and sight-related disabilities to ensure that all types of disabilities that impact digital use are represented. "Having direct contact with people living with disabilities helps bridge that gap between legal accessibility and usability."

Creating an online experience that's usable for the visually impaired

Many experts suggested that accessibility must be implemented from an online platform's inception.

Two Blind Brothers, a clothing store created by two visually impaired brothers, for example, was born with the purpose of helping the Foundation Fighting Blindness, whose main objective is to fund research that leads to the cure and prevention of retinal diseases that cause visual impairment.


"Our brand is known for the 'Shop Blind' experience, a challenge based on trust where customers can choose to buy something without seeing it first," said Bradford Manning, cofounder of Two Blind Brothers. "My brother and I have often relied on trusting others while shopping, and this experience tries to recreate that. Whether you are perfectly sighted or have visual challenges, everyone is getting the same information — all they know is the price they are paying."

He added that customers can make purchases in the traditional way, by seeing what the product looks like and reading descriptions, and in that case not only is web accessibility taken into account, but the fact that everyone, regardless of their disability, can access similar information and make their purchases with confidence.

"We have an independent web developer who helps us maintain accessible functionality," Manning said. "It's an iterative process as ecommerce platforms, new content, customer feedback, and third-party apps change. We also have a quick customer service team to make sure we can meet everyone's needs."

"Inclusion should be in the DNA of the brand," he added. "Whether it's the clothing, the production partners, or our social media, inclusion is not just good, it's good business because it reflects your values."

For stores that didn't implement accessibility from the beginning, experts recommended starting with getting educated on common accessibility problems among the visually-impaired community and the advantages of solving them.


Many accessibility consultancy firms offer, in addition to their traditional services, the possibility of receiving website accessibility assessments free of charge, and the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), the international organization in charge of developing standards and guidelines for all websites, also offers free resources for this purpose. Information shared by other people with disabilities is also often an excellent starting point.

"Very often all that is needed is to create understanding, education, and empathy around these issues," Lulham said. "This can improve your reputation as an online business, build up trust with disabled customers, and ensure that you are not missing out on a huge amount of sales opportunities because a large portion of your audience cannot access your site."

Taking visually-impaired people into account when writing product descriptions or prioritizing the user experience in the store over the way it looks are what experts and visually-impaired people said can really make a difference — and make the online shopping experience enjoyable for everyone.