1 in 4 American Adults Have a Disability — Does Your Site Give Them a Great Shopping Experience?

Digital accessibility is becoming a big topic in retail, and it’s easy to see why: one in four American adults, or 61 million people, identify as having some kind of disability, according to Perkins Access. Globally, shoppers with disabilities spend $1.2 billion annually, and retailers looking to earn their business need to make their shopping experience as pleasant as it is for any other customer.

The audience of people with disabilities is larger than most people think,” said Geoff Freed, Director of Perkins Access Consulting during a session at the 2021 Retail Innovation Conference. “It used to be that people would say, ‘I don’t need to worry about accessible websites because I don’t think people with disabilities buy my things.’ But there’s no way to know when someone with or without a disability comes to your website.”

The increase in digital sales that came with the pandemic has affected all demographics, making expanding digital accessibility more important than ever. If a retailer doesn’t support the browsing experience for a shopper with disabilities — for example people with conditions that make it difficult or impossible to use a mouse — the lack of an interface suited for keyboard-only navigation will drive these potential consumers to a site that does offer these accommodations.

Accessible Design Benefits Everyone

According to Freed, making a website accessible to people with disabilities should be a similar process to improving the user interface for all consumers. Sites that can be read with a screen magnifier or support using a screen reader, for blind people or those with limited vision, run parallel to an emphasis on general clarity and ease of purchase. As a result, it becomes easier to browse for all your customers.


“Digital accessibility means that everybody can use the same resource, not a special one or a separate one,” said Freed. “When you design things to be accessible, everyone can take advantage of it.”

The curb cuts that were added to sidewalks across the country due to the the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 are a physical-world example of society-wide benefits. While they were specifically implemented to help people with mobility-related disabilities, they have proven useful for anyone with a stroller, bicycle or other wheeled vehicle. “Everyone uses curb cuts, and in the same way everyone takes advantage of your accessible design on your website,” said Freed.

Accessible sites also play a role in making a true commitment to corporate responsibility. Two-thirds of shoppers prefer to make purchases from brands that share their values, according to Freed — and a retailer that goes the extra mile to ensure its website is equally accessible to everyone is proving that it is committed to serving the entire community.

Bottom-line benefits also include limiting litigation’s impact. The number of digital accessibility lawsuits has risen 571% since 2017, and good website design can both bolster defense cases against these claims and help prevent them from arising in the first place.

Accessibility Must Cover the Entire Shopper Journey

Once a retailer has committed to improving accessibility, it’s important to encompass the entire path to purchase. For example, an easily navigable checkout page does little good when the product pages are frustrating for people with certain disabilities. The same goes for everything from email blast promotions to a user’s ability to read on-site reviews.

“The whole path, from the moment the homepage loads on my screen to the moment I touch the purchase button and beyond, has to be usable, not just one area,” said Freed. “If that one area is usable, but the path leading there is not, someone with a disability will never get to the accessible part.”

However, there are three areas retailers can focus on to get a strong bang for their buck:

  • Signing in or making an account: Shoppers should have an accessible way to find and fill out registration forms, and it should be easy for returning customers to sign in no matter how they do so. Make sure the “Sign In” and “Create an Account” links are easily located and can be recognized by a screen reader for visually impaired users.
  • Finding what they’re looking for: Retailers’ search engines and browsing tools both need to be accessible for everyone — different shoppers prefer to explore sites in different ways, and every option should be equally viable. Additionally, detailed text descriptions should be available for all products, including information about what the product is and what its key features are.
  • Checking out and reviewing the order: This is “where accessible design is tested,” said Freed, as this page needs to be designed with both ease of inputting information and simplicity of viewing cart contents and shipping options in mind. The whole form should be accessible, including alternatives for complex components such as date pickers (aka calendar pop-ups).

Additionally, it should be easy for users to dismiss pop-ups for newsletters, email signups and other offers no matter where they are on the site. While these are just a minor inconvenience for a shopper browsing with a mouse, they can become frustrating barriers for people using alternative means of navigating a website.

Building Accessibility is a Long-Term Journey

Because accessibility needs to cover the entire shopper journey, properly implementing these features requires bringing your entire organization on board. While individuals may spearhead these changes, ensuring the company keeps up with the latest developments in accessibility requires shared knowledge and buy-ins across departments. Improving accessibility is a continuous project that calls for developing a long-term strategy.

“Everybody needs to buy into the process, from the very top down,” said Freed. “That means leadership needs to have a basic education on accessibility and why it’s important — how it can expand the userbase, how it can be used to make it easier for everyone to buy things. You really need to involve everybody in the decision chain.”

This story is based on a session from the 2021 Retail Innovation Conference. You can view it here for free, and don’t miss the chance to hear first-hand from dozens of the top minds in retail at this year’s in-person event, the Retail Innovation Conference & Expo May 10-12, 2022 in Chicago. Registration is now open!

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