Webshops are poorly accessible for the blind and visually impaired

 Edition 30 October 2018, by Phoebe Potter

A major new study commissioned by the Dutch Institute for Human Rights has uncovered major flaws in the accessibility of websites. The study, which was published during the ‘Week of Accessibility’, showed that a significant number of websites are very hard to access for the blind and visually impaired.

It is fairly simple to create a website that caters for visually impaired and blind people – including elderly people, people with colour-blindness or people who cannot use a mouse – and yet significant failures were shown across a number of high-profile websites. As people with visual impairments often use screen reader software that can magnify or ‘read out’ the text on a website, websites must be set up for this – for instance by having text alternatives to images and an accessible navigation system, rather than relying on the use of a mouse. The careful use of colour, contrast and enlargement is important for those with visual impairments.

One of the most worrying features of the study is that this problem had already been investigated two years ago, but the current study shows that little has changed since then. Since 2016, the UN Handicap Convention has been in force in the Netherlands, which guarantees the right of disabled people to be able to be able to participate in society as fully and independently as possible. Despite this, the report concluded that ‘among the more than two million people with a disability in the Netherlands there will be currently be many who cannot or are insufficiently able to independently use the studied websites.’ The report was carried out by the Accessibility Foundation, and tested the extent to which commercial websites comply with international guidelines for digital accessibility. The study was undertaken in two parts: the first looked closely at forty websites and webshops, while in the second stage almost 2000 websites were scanned ‘partially automatically’.

Of the more closely investigated sites, only eBay did well. Because it belongs to an American parent company, it falls under much stricter regulations for making websites than Dutch sites. Some of the most high-profile Dutch websites were deemed inadequately accessible, such as Ah.nl (the Albert Heijn site) and Booking.com. On average, of the webshops studied, each contained thirteen different types of obstacles for people with disabilities. As the internet becomes ever more closely intertwined with people’s daily lives, the foundation expressed its concern. ‘Due to the increased use of the internet,’ Executive Board member Dick Houtzager said, ‘people in their daily lives are increasingly dependent on websites. If they are not accessible, people with a disability are at a disadvantage.’

Most of the problems arose when people tried to place an order, request a subscription or book a trip. Filling out a form can be particularly difficult for those with a visual impairment, as it is often not made clear to someone using a screen reader what information is required in which field. Images which do not have descriptions, text colours that blend into the background, dropdown menus and incomprehensible text in links are common problems which render webshops inaccessible. The principal reason identified for the lack of action so far has been a lack of urgency among website hosts. A survey recently showed that few professionals in the field of online sales are aware of or interested in the subject. More than a third of those surveyed said they would start improvements in the next two years.

The organisation thuiswinkel.org set up an action plan earlier this year to increase awareness and knowledge of digital accessibility. This has been welcomed by the Institute for Human Rights in the Netherlands. But it has also called for more action to be taken at a higher level. It has asked the government to make agreements with companies about what the law, which states that providers of goods and services must make their websites accessible ‘step by step’, actually means in practice.