A new survey highlights a "digital divide" between the blind and access to the internet.
- Two-thirds of blind individuals' transactions over the internet are abandoned due to their inability to access parts of a website.
- Blind internet users regularly make multiple calls to customer service about accessibility issues but, ultimately, are forced to visit a competitor's website.
- E-commerce accounts for more than half a trillion dollars of U.S. retail revenues – of which $10.3 billion originates from the visually impaired.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) established rules to help disabled Americans access businesses in the real world, accessing online businesses has become a growing problem in recent years, stemming from a lack of accessibility options on many websites. As a result, online businesses are running the risk of alienating visually impaired consumers and potentially locking themselves out of a major revenue stream in the process, according to a newly released study.
According to the World Health Organization, there are approximately "1.3 billion people living with some form of vision impairment." Through in-depth interviews with 73 adults living with blindness or severe visual impairments earlier this year, Deque Systems found that disabled individuals find it particularly difficult to shop online, thanks to websites that aren't accessible enough.
"Besides the moral dilemma and legal risk, businesses with inaccessible websites are missing a huge revenue opportunity by ignoring an untapped market," said Preety Kumar, CEO of Deque Systems. "Among internet retailers specifically, two-thirds of the top 10 online retailers had serious accessibility issues, meaning they are leaving $6.9 billion in potential North American e-commerce revenues on the table."
Why the internet is inaccessible for the blind
While brick-and-mortar businesses may need to make "reasonable modifications" – such as installing ramps for entrances and exits or adding signage written in Braille – to make their establishments accessible for disabled people, achieving accessibility on the internet relies on technical solutions. Assistive technologies like screen readers or magnifiers can help visually impaired individuals use the internet. Unfortunately, these digital helping hands need to interact with websites designed with their functionality in mind; otherwise, information becomes harder to understand for the end user.
Researchers said they were able to identify three common themes among most websites:
- Pages were partially inaccessible, meaning some areas were usable for the blind while others weren't.
- Some pages' accessibility regressed as changes or upgrades to the site were made.
- Commonplace features such as CAPTCHA, which uses images to distinguish humans from bots, were unusable.
Since the internet is a highly visual form of communication, different "accessibility blockers" can hinder different types of websites. For example, researchers found that 80% of news sites "had significant accessibility issues," while 70% of respondents said they were "unable to access information and services through government websites," including key sites like Medicare.
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The business impact of website inaccessibility
The issue of inaccessibility impacts nearly every facet of the internet, but businesses stand to lose out on a lot of revenue if visually impaired and blind individuals are unable to complete transactions.
According to researchers, most major e-commerce websites in terms of revenues – like Amazon, Best Buy and Target – "were relatively accessible." Two-thirds of the top 10 retailers by revenue, however, had "serious accessibility issues," such as a lack of search labels, zooming support or non-CAPTCHA alternatives.
Approximately 90% of respondents said they called a site's customer service to report their problems with the site, only to have to call again when nothing was addressed. They told researchers that even if they abandoned a transaction and went elsewhere, they'd still make a call to get the problem fixed.
As a result of these accessibility shortcomings, researchers found data that suggests that two-thirds of internet transactions started by blind or visually impaired individuals are abandoned altogether. That being said, not all of those transactions are completely abandoned but, instead, are completed with other companies that have more accessible websites. Researchers estimated that companies with inaccessible websites lose $6.9 billion annually to competitors. [Interested in e-commerce website software? Check out our top picks.]
Researchers estimated that 2% of all e-commerce transactions are conducted by blind individuals, assuming less than half of America's blind population regularly conducts business online. While that may not sound like much at first, it's important to note that $517 billion in online revenues were tallied last year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. As a result, that 2% accounts for $10.3 billion in yearly revenue.
As the American population gets older, officials expect the blind and visually impaired population to double by 2050. To avoid further alienating a growing group of people, Kumar said businesses need to step up to make their websites accessible to everyone.
"A focus on accessibility needs to be a core part of the website design and development process," said Kumar. "Considering accessibility as early as the conception phase, and proactively building and testing sites for accessibility as they move towards production, is significantly more effective than remediating it later, helping organizations save significant time and resources while avoiding unnecessary customer grievances."