How Online Shopping Is Excluding the Disabled Consumer
As a legally blind woman, I’m constantly getting questions like who dresses you, do you have a stylist and how are you able to dress so stylish? There is a major misconception that people with disabilities are not interested in fashion. And if you are a person with a disability that society views as “fashionable”, then it usually comes as a surprise. The major problem with this type of thinking is that it directly affects how much access we have to fashion. And since we are not considered fashion consumers, we are often left out of the conversation of how fashion is marketed and produced.
Adaptive fashion is a term that’s becoming more and more popular as the fashion industry works towards being more inclusive. However, I often wondered where I fit in the conversation because most times the focus has solely been on the design of the clothing. Although, I agree 100 percent that clothing needs to be more accessible for people of all abilities, I’m conflicted about speaking about it, since I myself don’t struggle with putting on clothes independently. But then I started to look at my shopping experience as a person who identifies as blind. I started to have lots of discussions with other blind individuals, and the feedback was always the same – that it can be very frustrating. The current online and in-store shopping system is not set up for people with disabilities to successfully shop independently.
The current online and in-store shopping system is not set up for people with disabilities to successfully shop independently.
Online shopping has become more and more popular over the years, especially recently due to the global pandemic. For a blind individual using a screen reader, online shopping can be extremely stressful, main reason being that most websites are not compatible with assistive technology. For example, images are usually not described on a website page. For someone using a screen reader, it will often read the word “image.” This tells a blind individual nothing about the product or what’s been displayed on the page. We call descriptions like these alternative or “alt” text. Alt text breaks down the image and provides those using screen readers with detailed facts about the photo. It’s extremely important for brands to incorporate alt text into their website because it helps increase their SEO on Google when done correctly. Another issue is that buttons and links are usually unlabelled on websites. For a blind person navigating through a website, that can be confusing because it’ll often read “button,” “button,” “button link,” “link,” “link.” Imagine being a consumer on the website and knowing nothing about the product; you probably won’t be particularly motivated to purchase from that brand. “I want to support new brands and follow the latest trends,” Timbher Lomax, A blindness Rehabilitation Professional for the state of New Jersey told me. “Detailed descriptions aren’t consistent on websites. There may be bits of a description included in the thumbnail for the product image, but written descriptions for products leaves quite a bit to the blind imagination.”
I do want to mention however, that a lot of the responsibility when it comes to accessibility does fall on web developers like Shopify and WordPress. It’s up to them to make sure that accessibility plug-ins are actually accessible and that they’re using real user testing in the process. It’s also up to them to provide detailed instructions on how to use the plug-ins successfully. Alex Herold is the founder and CEO of Patti and Ricky, which is an adaptive fashion marketplace for people with disabilities. She has consistently demonstrated a commitment to curating more inclusive shopping experiences, but says she struggles with navigating the accessibility overlays that are being offered for websites.
“I really found it difficult to locate where to put my alt text,” Herold said. “Accessibility should not be a stressful process and website builders need to do a better job about guiding brands to use the features. I’m paying for a feature that I don’t know how to use and that’s a problem.”
Tackling accessibility for a brand, can be a little intimidating, if you’re not familiar with how it works. I highly recommend working with an accessibility consultant if you are a brand to make sure that your website is truly accessible. However, when working with a consultant, you want to make sure that it is someone with a disability. It’s going to make so much more sense to consult with a person who has the lived experience, who can speak to the issues with accessibility on your website.
But if you’re a new brand just starting out, I know that hiring a consultant may not always be in the budget. There are still a few things that you can do as you work towards being a more inclusive brand. For example, social media is a great way to start practicing better accessibility habits. Instagram has become extremely popular for brands to market and sell products. The cool thing about Instagram is that the alt text option is already included within the application. Anytime a brand posts a new product, they can go to more options, select alt text and write a description about the item they’re sharing. This then invites the blind community into the shopping experience with no cost to the brand. It’s also helpful to include image descriptions in the caption, especially when sharing videos.
“When you don’t rely on a mirror every day to look at yourself or apply your make up, the beauty of touch, smell and emotion really drive how I want to spend my money.”
“My hope for the future is that all fashion and beauty websites have really detailed alt text,” Lucy Edwards, a UK based Blind Broadcaster, Youtuber and Disability Activist explained. “I think they need more than the average website because we need to visualize the garment in our mind. Anything that brands can think of to help paint a mental picture in our minds would be great. The more creative, the better. When you don’t rely on a mirror every day to look at yourself or apply your make up, the beauty of touch, smell and emotion really drive how I want to spend my money.”
Brands are missing out on a large number of consumers by not being accessible. One in four people have some form of a disability, according to the latest data done by the Centres for Disease Control. Therefore, the exclusion of persons with disabilities hurts brands’ market share and bottom line. Especially because according to research done by Diverseability Magazine, the total disposable income for U.S. adults with disabilities is about 490 billion dollars.
The fashion industry has the potential to be a leader of real inclusion. Fashion has always heavily influenced the culture and continues to shape the way we express ourselves through our appearance. My hope is that they take the opportunity to move towards accessibility in a way that it is included from the beginning and not an afterthought. Lucy Edwards shared the same sentiment: “I know for certain that if more brands heard about universal design day-to- today in product development meetings then we would see a more inclusive world. I always say that I knew nothing about disability, until I became a disabled person myself. For the first time ever I’m having discussions with brands that I never would have several years ago but this is just the beginning – and if you’re reading this, your business needs to be inclusive today not tomorrow!”