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Are retailers turning a blind eye to the plight of the UK's partially-sighted?

The UK’s blind and partially-sighted population currently stands at around two million – and by 2050, this is set to almost double. With a growing population living with sight loss, accessibility and inclusion are now more crucial than ever.

GENERAL MERCHANDISE

Are retailers turning a blind eye to the plight of the UK's partially-sighted?

Fortunately, the importance of this is starting to be realised. A number of big brands including social media giants Twitter and Facebook have already taken the first steps to create more user-friendly and accessible websites, bringing about the need for other businesses to follow suit.

With online shopping becoming the fastest-growing retail market, and given recent reports which have criticised retailers for poor accessibility both in-store and online, pressure is mounting on retailers to make their websites more accessible. It’s becoming inconceivable how a retailer will be able to take advantage of the growing online shopping population without first catering for all through their online presence.

So what exactly is website accessibility?
Website accessibility is about creating websites or mobile apps that can be easily used and navigated by those with disabilities – whether they be neurological, cognitive, speech, physical, auditory or visual.

It goes without saying that websites and mobile apps should always be designed with the end user in mind and this is especially important in the realm of accessibility. Considering the sort of obstacles that those with disabilities come up against can create a better, more-informed, and ultimately more accessible end product.

What sort of issues do those living with sight loss currently face online?
Working closely with blind and partially-sighted people, we hear first-hand their frustrations and issues when trying to get online. A common bugbear from those we speak to is that a lot of desktop sites have too much going on and are cluttered. This causes problems for those who use screen reader devices, such as a speech synthesiser tool or a braille display.

Because of the cluttered desktop sites, more and more blind and partially-sighted people are turning to the mobile versions of websites. These rely more on text links than desktops do and generally have clearer interfaces, which makes things easier when using assistive technology.

Mobile apps are a different story though. With poorly-labelled buttons often a common occurrence of apps, screen readers can’t pick these up in order to assist users and therefore many apps are unusable for blind and partially-sighted people. There are some retailers who are making inroads in creating more accessible apps, such as John Lewis. However, this isn’t universal and more progress must be made to make mobile apps easier for those faced with disabilities.

Why is it particularly important for retailers to take note?
Ultimately, everyone should be able to access websites or apps and are entitled to have full access to the same information, regardless of their abilities. And this is a particularly important consideration for retailers who depend on sales of their products and services in order to make a profit. It makes little business sense to isolate an entire demographic of potential customers and stop them from buying your products. People living with from sight loss have a right to access information, understand everything about a product and make a purchase.

Failure to implement measures to improve accessibility can be extremely damaging for retailers and detrimental to reputation, loyalty, and ultimately sales.

What’s more, we’ve found that those struggling with the accessibility of a website often attempt to create their own solution before contacting a retailer. Given how simple some measures retailers can take in order to improve online accessibility, it seems absurd that there are still some that are failing to implement more accessible options.

As a retailer, what can I do to improve accessibility?
At present, it is the titans of tech that are racing ahead and ushering in an era of improved accessibility for the disabled, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. However, there are simple measures retailers can and should take in order to create better accessibility on their sites too.

A good starting place is the BBC accessibility guidelines as they provide advice on how to improve the accessibility of websites and mobile apps. In addition, here at RNIB we have introduced our own accreditation, RNIB Approved, which sees products, buildings, websites and services rigorously tested in order to be awarded with the accessibility standard.

For retailers, something as simple as increasing the size of buttons, changing the colour contrast of text, or overlaying audio onto the content of the site makes a huge difference. Even adding captions over images or videos which can then be detected by screen readers and braille displays makes using the internet a bit easier for those living with sight loss. These are small steps for retailers but they make massive leaps in improvement for blind and partially sighted people.

Given the UK’s growing sight loss population and the continued advancements in technology, we are fully expecting that over the next few years it will become unheard of for websites to exist without some measures in place to make them more user-friendly. Now is the time for retailers to act or they could be the ones left in the dark.

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