Don’t be shy online, 285 million customers waiting to buy!

It’s Christmas time and I’m keen to shop online. I have list of items and money to spend, burning a hole in my pocket. My family and friends are going to be so excited and proud when I surprise them with unexpected gifts. I fire up my laptop and start shopping.

I manage to find the website for a local shopping company. I know that all the items I want to purchase are available from this supplier. I sit back and start to scroll down until I hear my screen reader announce that the cursor is hovering over the search button. Then what should be a simple, fast and pleasant experience turns into a bloody nightmare.

You see, I am blind and I struggle to navigate a store’s website that is not properly labelled. This means that it is inaccessible to me. This means that regardless of how close to the top of the google search engine this website appears, it simply does not get my money.

Wikipedia describes accessibility to mean when a product, service, software, a device or an environment is designed with the disabled in mind.

There are 285 million visually impaired, or legally blind people on the planet. If that little shopping cart on the top right hand corner of the webpage is not labelled properly as the checkout, my audio navigation system simply won’t find it. The lack of accessibility in the website design makes it impossible for me to spend my money. This means that this online store does not get to do business with me or the 285 million other blind people just like me worldwide.

As a disabled person, I always say that I do not want special treatment; I do however wish for equal treatment.

It doesn’t cost a great deal to make a website accessible, accompanied by a great web developer. When creating a platform, the buttons should carry a written description in the template that houses them. It is that easy. No need for a fancy voice recording or special software to accommodate this functionality in the website build – just label your buttons!

Let me take a minute to explain what a picture looks like to me and what it could look like. So, lets for a minute say that one of the items on my shopping list is a collapsable camping chair. Yes, even us blind people do like to go camping, don’t be shocked.

When I reach the picture in question, my voice over reads what has been written in the label. It says, in its little robot like voice, “CHAIR”.  That’s all. I move on and don’t select it for my trolley because I don’t have a bloody clue what it really is.

So, what would a more suitable picture description read? Let me be brave and embellish a little. In a perfectly accessible world, the screen reader would say, “DARK GREEN COLLAPSABLE CAMPING CHAIR WITH ALUMINIUM LEGS, WEIGHS 5 KILOGRAMS AND FOLDS TO A SIZE OF 80CMS X 20CMS. WHEN FULLY ERECTED IT CAN CARRY A PERSON WEIGHING UP TO 100 KILOGRAMS. IT HAS A NICE STRONG BACK SUPPORT AND A WELL CUSHIONED SEAT. IT ALSO HAS A HANDY IN ARM DRINK HOLDER.”

Did you know that search engines, like google, will prioritize your website in the search listing if it is totally accessible? In most countries, lawmakers have listed that software and devices must be accessible. Let me again remind you, there are 285 million people that you are not doing business with if your site is not accessible. And that is just the blind community. What about the rest of the disabled population of the planet?

All I want is to buy a dark green collapsible camping chair that can hold my hot sweaty bum, and my chilly ice-filled drink comfortably when I next go camping. It would be so wonderful if I could buy this chair without asking a sighted person to assist me.

Independence is something that visually impaired and blind people crave on a daily basis. Having to ask for help is something that is only done when absolutely necessary and is never easy. Blind people hate to be a burden on their family and friends. Often, the visually impaired don’t even have someone readily available to help, they are really screwed. The world wide web has brought so much ease and simplicity to the world’s day to day tasks. This power is perhaps even more important for the blind community. It has the potential to make the world accessible to individuals who may never had had the opportunity of this type of exposure before.

Everyone reading this article can make themselves more accessible. It is as easy as labelling your photos before publishing and sharing them on social media. It is as easy as asking the blind person if they need assistance rather than turning to their sighted companion and asking them what does he or she need? I have found myself sitting in restaurants on a dozen occasions just to have the waiter approach the table and after realizing that I am blind, turn to my good wife and ask her what I would like to eat. The number one rule is that although I am blind, I still have a voice and am able to let you know exactly what I would like to eat.

This general lack of awareness is not limited to restaurants and waiting staff. In banks as well as retail stores, I have been led to the counter where the staff member again turns to my good wife and asks her what I need. Funny at times, but mostly disappointing.

Accessibility, in most cases does not have to cost anything more than some training. It does not have to be an obstacle for companies. It should rather be considered an essential part of the core values that is integrated into the design and development of their business mission or service. It should just be a natural part of how people do business. It is however forgotten or neglected most of the time.

I guess that the fact that I had not ever met another blind person before becoming one myself would have probably made me just as guilty as most. Perhaps I would have looked to the sighted person and asked them what their blind companion wanted or needed. Perhaps I to would have been an idiot. Perhaps yes, but I certainly hope not.

So what do we as the blind community do? We get furious. We go into a rage when our sighted guide dogs are not allowed access. We swear at the top of our voices when we are not able to complete a task alone. We cry. We wait. We sit in our prison cells and wish for an easier road.

Yes, all true, but then, hopefully, we act. We educate and encourage. We stand up and speak. We plant seeds for a more accessible future. A more aware world. Some of us manage to stop, breath and think and when the obstacles are totally insurmountable, we just keep trying. Most of the time with sheer determination, we sometimes find a way over them. If we can’t, then we manage to survive by moving around them. In the perfect world, we turn our obstacles into stepping stones.

There is a Greek proverb that states:

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

I want to challenge all the business owners, designers and developers of software, apps and services to plant some of these proverbial seeds.  Become more aware of these challenges. Make yourselves and your products accessible, you may just earn yourself that loyal customer base of 285 million blind and visually impaired shoppers as well as their friends, families and associates.

Let me finish off by stating a mantra that I have come to appreciate and have strived to live by since losing my eyesight just two and a half years ago…

“In a fully #accessible world, a #BlindManCan do anything that a sighted person is able to.”

Now don’t you want to be a part of making this world more accessible? Tell me how you are becoming more accessible:

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