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Making Internet Shopping Accessible

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Julie Howell

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User since: 30 Aug 2001

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Blind and partially sighted people are being excluded from one of the most

important technological breakthroughs of recent years. The ability to use the

world wide web to meet personal, education, information and shopping needs is

being denied to blind and partially sighted people by

a lack of inclusive design and a general ignorance by businesses and webmasters

of the simple steps that can make websites accessible for all.

There are 1.7 million people in the UK who are blind and partially sighted.

Research shows serious sight loss often curtails independent mobility and the

ability to get the information needed to participate fully in society. The opportunities

the world wide web provides for distance learning, shopping and communication

could revolutionise the lives of blind and partially sighted people. It could

reduce dependence on others and it could give a community that is often excluded,

a voice in the 'information society'.

The technology exists, and is becoming cheaper, to allow people with no sight

to use computers, using speech synthesis and braille displays. However, many

websites are inaccessible for blind and partially sighted people as they are

not properly designed.

The legal case

RNIB believes there should be a legal requirement for web services to be accessible

to disabled people within the spirit of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995

(DDA). The introduction of the first DDA provisions in 1996 and then again in

1999 put accessible information on the agenda of many companies, in some cases

for the first time. Section 21 of the Act, introduced on 1 October 1999, placed

a duty on service providers to make information about their services accessible

for blind and partially sighted people. This has significant implications for

company websites.

As many websites are set up in the USA, another important development in the

legal case is provided by Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act

(ADA). This Act mandates that all federal electronic and information purchases

made after 7 August 2000 must be made accessible to people with disabilities.

The business case

Making websites accessible to blind and partially sighted people, and all disabled

people, also makes good business sense. RNIB is approached by an overwhelming

number of commercial organisations looking to make websites accessible for financial

reasons. The main business obstacle remains ignorance: ignorance of the potential

purchasing power of disabled people, and ignorance of the ease with which inclusive

design can be introduced.

Access campaigns

In 1993, RNIB launched the See it Right initiative to make companies and organisations

aware of the need to make information accessible to blind and partially sighted

people, and offered practical advice on doing this. In May 1999, RNIB launched

a campaign for Good Web Design.

This report is part of that campaign.

Research findings

RNIB carried out research for this report in August 2000, testing the websites

of 17 high street stores and banks against a set of accessibility criteria,

in order to establish the accessibility of their sites to blind and partially

sighted people.

The results were extremely disappointing. All companies in the study failed

to meet the needs of blind and partially sighted people.

No company achieved a 100 per cent pass rate against the five criteria. Some

websites even failed every aspect of the test.


Of the three high street banks we visited online, all failed our assessment,

even though banking is regarded as a universal essential service. Setting up

a current account or paying bills is not currently an option for many blind

and partially sighted people.


Online supermarkets performed particularly badly in the research. Three major

chains failed four out of the five criteria. We know that blind and partially

sighted people find getting to the shops, and reading food labels, very difficult

and now it seems they cannot even benefit from shopping delivery.

Fast food

RNIB found little attempt made by pizza delivery companies to provide accessible


Clothing and retail stores

Three of the four clothing stores failed miserably, passing only two out of

fifteen criteria between them. Poor design made entry into the sites very difficult

for people using access technologies. The clothes on sale lacked text descriptions,

leaving blind customers wondering if the beaded satin mules would match the

easy-fit trousers!

The most common cause of inaccessibility was poor or inappropriate coding of

HyperText Mark up Language (HTML), the programming language of the web. Careless

coding included: image files that were not supported by alternative text, upon

which access technology is reliant to convert the image into something meaningful

to blind Net users; poor implementation of frames; and a failure to provide

a screen design that was easy to read. This rendered the pages useless to blind

internet users.

RNIB's recommendations

Based on the findings of this research, RNIB sets out the following recommendations:

  • RNIB urges all designers to take responsibility to ensure everyone, regardless

    of ability or disability, can read their designs.

  • RNIB recommends use of the Web Accessibility Initiative's Web Content Accessibility

    Guidelines, a set of standards which ensures websites are accessible for all

    customers (see Chapter 3). While this report does not explore all of the technicalities

    of web design in any depth, designers will find sufficient guidance and references

    to set themselves on the right path to accessible design.

  • RNIB encourages companies who have websites, or who are planning to launch

    them, to recognise the needs of blind and partially sighted customers. If

    businesses fail to do so, they are potentially losing out on 8.5 million disabled

    customers, not to mention their friends, relatives and carers.

  • RNIB strongly encourages blind and partially sighted people to contact organisations

    whose websites are inaccessible and to raise the issue directly.

  • Finally, we hope the companies featured in this report will realise that

    the discrimination created through inaccessible websites is unacceptable and

    unnecessary. RNIB urges those companies to take the necessary steps to improve

    the design of their online services.

A printed full copy of the report is available for UK£5.00 from RNIB

Customer Services on +44 (0)845-702 3153, and you can get an electronic copy free of charge from

Further information:

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