How Do Blind or Visually Impaired People Shop Online?
The holiday season is just around the corner, and many will begin their online shopping very soon. Nowadays we can find products on the Internet ranging from clothing and books to steaks and gourmet food. This has many advantages for everyone, but more so for blind and visually impaired or otherwise disabled individuals. Ironically though, those of us with vision loss often have to use trial and error to find shopping websites we can easily access. Many of the major online retailers are increasingly making their sites more accessible, and that means that we have more options. I will share some of the accessibility snags I have encountered as well as helpful features that allow blind and visually impaired individuals to have more positive experiences when shopping on the worldwide web.
What Makes Online Shopping Unique?
A lot of us love the convenience of ordering our items and getting them delivered to our door. This is a plus for people with disabilities, as it is often easier to get items delivered instead of having to transport them on a bus or cab. The fact that we can shop online 24/7 means we can buy things at our preferred time. Many websites also offer product descriptions and features, so we can often find what we need independently.
What Accessibility Difficulties Exist?
Screen-reading and magnifying software make it easier for people with vision loss to browse the Internet. Nevertheless, there are still “snags” we encounter when perusing online store aisles. These are just some of the most common difficulties I have encountered:
- Unlabeled form fields. Form fields are the boxes where we enter our information, such as search keywords or credit card information. When these boxes are not labeled, my screen reading software cannot tell me where I should type in each piece of information – my name, credit card information, etc. By doing some guesswork I can usually figure out where things go, but this can be very time consuming.
- Unlabeled links or graphics. Screen-readers are not able to read or describe pictures or other graphics to us. This means that if we come across a link with only an image, then we will have no clue where it is directing us to. By adding brief text descriptions, websites can make it easier to browse through the different products and parts of the website.
- Cluttered homepages. There are times when I find out a webpage has many links to various products, offers, etc. This grabs the attention of sighted shoppers, but it can be tricky for blind and visually impaired users to navigate through the website.
Many of the accessibility challenges can be easily eliminated by a few simple tips, both for users and web developers:
- Include headings. Even if a website has many links, separating different sections and categories by headings helps organize a website. That way we can use our screen-reader’s heading “hotkey” to better navigate through the page.
- Users should be familiar with the screen-reader’s “find” function. This can help you easily search for and find a keyword on the page. By typing in a phrase like “shopping cart” you will easily locate it rather than reading through each line on the page to find it.
- Users should also be familiar with their screen-reader’s links “hot key.” By bringing up a list of the available links, you can easily navigate through and find the link you want to select. Again, this can be quicker than navigating line by line.
Major online retailers such as Amazon and Target have made it easier for blind and visually impaired shoppers to find and purchase things. By making simple changes to the design and layout of websites, online retailers can help us shop quickly and easily. It is also important for blind and visually impaired to be familiar with the various navigation commands of their screen-readers or other software. This can help you have a more positive experience when doing your online shopping and enjoy the convenience of browsing virtual stores. For more information and examples about accessible retail websites, check out this edition of AccessWorld, a publication from the American Foundation for the Blind. Happy shopping to all!