The Coles Challenge: How Badly-Designed Sites Discriminate

The Coles Challenge: How Badly-Designed Sites Discriminate

A blind woman has made news by launching a claim of unlawful discrimination against Coles and its online website. For those of us who are totally blind and working in the disability law space this lawsuit is no surprise. Both the problem and the response are unfortunately common.

So what is the problem in the Coles case? According to the ABC news report, the website is written in a way that stops people with disabilities using it.

What is the real problem though? The IT people at Coles did not take steps to check their service was accessible before they launched it. It is extremely cheap and easy for most websites and software packages to be designed in a way that enables everyone in the community to have full access.

How would a sighted person know if a site was accessible or not? In most cases they would not have any idea. For them the site would look precisely the same.

How are websites made accessible?

People with low vision or blindness often use screen readers (such as the Brisbane-based free Non-Visual Desktop Access). Screen readers provide an audio description of the content of computer screens. So a person using a screen reader does not “see” the computer screen. Instead they listen to their adaptive technology reading the content of the screen.

While screen readers are fantastic, they have limitations. One limitation is that they only read text; they cannot explain graphics or photos. Screen readers largely ignore images and photographs.

To be accessible, websites should provide a text description of the image or photo. The text can be invisible to sighted users (for instance, by putting white text on a white screen), but the adaptive technology will have no problems reading the text.

What does the law say?

The law on web accessibility has been settled in Australia since the Maguire v SOCOG case back in 2000. In this case, a blind user successfully sued the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games to make their website accessible. Essentially, SOCOG was required to follow the web accessibility guidelines.

Since the Maguire case there has not been a judicial determination on web accessibility in Australia. In Canada and the USA, there have been some significant wins in court. In the UK Equality Act 2010, web access is specifically included in the statute.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) prohibits businesses from providing goods or services in a way that directly or indirectly discriminates against people because of their disability. Creating a website that is not accessible treats people with disabilities less favourably, which means the business needs to establish that this discrimination is reasonable.

The most common argument for reasonableness focuses on cost. Some websites would be very difficult to render accessible. YouTube, for example, has 100 hours of new videos uploaded every minute. It would be extremely expensive to provide text to describe the audio in every video.

At the other end of the expense spectrum are retail websites, such as Coles, which are criticised for not being accessible for people using screen readers. Online retail stores already provide details of products and simply need to change a few scripts on their pages to enable people with vision impairments to access the site. After perhaps a day of work by an IT person the site would be accessible with no ongoing expenses.

Discrimination is still a problem

While the law is generally settled, practice is far from it. Only this Thursday morning the author had an email with the ABC article on Coles, another article in the Daily Beast about legal action against TED to have their videos subtitled and a discussion on a mailing list for blind lawyers about a newly introduced human resource package that is less accessible than the system it replaced.

The extent of inaccessible websites and software packages is concerning and surprising. Accessibility guidelines are simple and inexpensive to implement in most situations. The costs of ensuring access are lowest at the design or purchase stages.

Businesses do not need to become IT or accessibility experts; they need only ask questions of those who are. When a business buys a software package they tell the IT supplier what they need the package to do.

If a business at this stage includes disability accessibility as a requirement, then the IT supplier should turn their mind to the issue. If the IT person does not provide an accessible product, then that is a breach of contract and the business can shift the cost of retrofitting back to the IT supplier.

Win-win for visually impaired people and retailers

The growth of commerce on the internet is transforming the lives of persons with disabilities. If you cannot drive a car, retail shopping is more difficult. If you cannot reach the high shelves or push a trolley, picking up groceries is difficult. Web shopping, in contrast, enables a user to visit different stores, compare prices, read specials and have everything delivered to the front door.

What does this mean for online retail business? Considering about 10% of Australians have a vision problem, having an inaccessible online retail store means about 2 million customers are receiving poor service. If an online retail store became fully accessible and advertised this fact, then it is foreseeable that there is a large customer share that is just waiting for good service.

Rather than wait until a customer has their lawyer file suit, online retail stores should simply comply with their legal requirements and consider the potential for increasing their market share by being fully inclusive.The ConversationPaul Harpur is a lecturer, workplace lawyer and disability scholar at The University of Queensland. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • As much as i feel for those who are blind, sometimes its not easy to make things accessible, are shops themselves really all that accessible to blind people anyway, there is no brail on the products/shelves to identify products and prices (maybe one day when all products have RFID/NFC barcodes, they can stroll along with a reader and muddle through it), is there a reason their site should be any different.

    • The accessibility of a shop is no excuse for poor accessibility on a website.

      In fact the difficulties for a blind person shopping in a bricks-and mortar store are a very good reason why large retailers should make their online shopping more accessible.

  • The problem is most accessible site are horrible to use. Looks at most government websites, for example. All designed with accessibility in mind, but completely fall over when it comes to regular uses. They really need multiple pages made available, or more accessibility information embedded into pages, they current system really doesn’t work well.

    • Are you able to be more specific? In particular I would be interested to hear just one example of any particular government website where you’re able to state exactly what aspect of its accessibility has made it hard for you to use?

      Some suggestions on what it may be that has *ever* caused you great difficulty in this space:

      * Consistent (strong) contrast levels between text and backgrounds
      * Standards compliant use of semantic HTML elements
      * The equal potential for the site to be used via mouse or keyboard
      * Meaningful and descriptive use of alt-text to describe content which is presented visually
      * Availability of transcripts and captions for multimedia content
      * Other?

      As I said, incredibly keen to understand which of these has ever made your life harder.

    • Absolutely not true. There’s no technical limitation of making a website accessible that would make it harder to use for regular users. If the UX is bad it’s the designer’s fault.

  • Dear Mr. Website Maker,

    Please ensure your website is accessible to all cats, cows and fish. Failure to do as such will result in a lawsuit.


    James T. Fishcowcatson.

  • I wonder how accessible the website would be to a pin-matrix display like a HyperBraille?

  • It is clear that no one here, not even the author are not employed in the IT (as you call it) area.

    “After perhaps a day of work by an IT person the site would be accessible with no ongoing expenses.” keep dreaming mate… behind Coles website (e-commerce) with hundreds of product changes per day, there is probably an army of IT people and Im sure that their website is not running “some” scripts, but its more of a combination of platforms.

    One more thing, how would you feel when you would know that your personal bank detailed are loaded in some weird application, stored somewhere and that can read them out to you while you are in a bus?

    I understand that there are Australians out there that have a certain type of disability but making such claims and expecting the entire world to roll over and change based on that is a bit to much. Also, one has to be realistic and think before making such claims, because you may no know what needs to be done in order to change something like this.

    • Just a minor point – the way screen readers work (which I assume is what you’re banging on about in the second paragraph) is by parsing html as rendered through the user agent. There’s no storing of the information involved beyond what’s already happened for it to be shown on the machine in the first place.

      Do agree on the point that this is not a trivial exercise, but disagree on what you’re driving at in the conclusion – this is absolutely worth the effort, particularly given that so much of accessibility is just about coding things to the spec in the first place and making appropriate use of context-appropriate elements.

      (Source: Someone employed in IT, and a particularly relevant field at that)

  • If you do it right, you can have a gorgeous website that meets accessibility standards. explains about ARIA, a set of HTML tags that not only make content accessible for people with screen readers, but also helps screen readers work out what role an element plays (e.g. tells the screen reader “This is a back button” or “This is used to confirm your booking”).

    The problem also is, half of the time the people designing or planning the site don’t really think about accessibility or don’t realise that you can’t just strip back the styles and be left with something a blind person can navigate. It’s a bit like Internet Explorer support – you probably should, for both of the visitors who use IE, but it’s so far down on your list because you’re unlikely to get sued for it, that you don’t worry about it.

    • I disagree.

      Common web frameworks are not accessible friendly. The latest versions of angular don’t play nicely with older web browsers nor with screen readers. Dodgy hacks are required to make them work resulting in terrible and rigid software, which in turn effects all users.

      The only real solution would be to host a text based version of the application and incur the costs of maintaining two sites. The issue is that businesses would loose heaps of revenue simply by not getting their value back in profit of maintaining a sepreate site simply for those with accessibility issues. A government subsidization scheme for public services such as grocery shopping would help with this possibly

  • I can’t reveal too much, but as I was closely involved in this I can assure you that the front-end devs aren’t morons; consideration was given from day 0 to ensuring the online store was accessible and it was one of the key requirements. WCAG AA guidelines were followed strictly, ARIA tags were implemented everywhere, and Vision Australia performed a number of audits on the site providing sign-off at various stages. There were close to a hundred people involved in the development and close on 6 months of real world testing. So either the woman in question is telling porkies, or there have been some significant changes that have made the site less accessible than when it was designed.

    The fact she can place an order means that it’s not inaccessible, the fact it takes her 3 days means there’s obviously a failure in the design that should be fixed to make things easier. Can she really sue for “discrimination” when the site is accessible and all reasonable steps have been taken to make it so? If the Coles site is so bad, why isn’t she using the Woolworths one?
    It’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds – if she wins it will have a significant implication on all online stores in this country…

    • “Can she really sue for “discrimination” when the site is accessible and all reasonable steps have been taken to make it so?”

      That’s a really interesting question. She’s essentially suing for bad design, not discrimination.

    • An article I read on the ABC news website (
      that said that yes the site was initially accessible but they made some changes to it in 2013 and made it completely inaccessible, she complained numerous times through various different avenues and got little to no response. So I think yeah initially it wasn’t much of an issue but after the change in 2013, it was unusable. Not sure why the lawsuit targets Coles specifically but there may be an issue of Woolies not delivering to her area or who knows what else. I can’t imagine someone being that stubborn to HAVE to use a certain company over another that provides the service they need. I’m sure it’s happened but probably not to the point where a lawyer would go, yeah lets spend time and resources on suing someone because we’re stubborn.

  • Interesting to see someone else with a little insight on this topic.

    I think the thing to remember is that WCAG is a set of *guidelines* for a reason. While considered best practice, it’s important to remember that even if followed perfectly, there are still going to me some people who the output doesn’t work for, due to the huge range of factors which influence how a person interacts with the website (range of disabilities being a small component of this).

    The usual practice in areas where I’ve worked in this space is to supplement this level of accessibility with sound user support, so that in the event that a transaction can’t be completed through the site, alternative channels are available. This lessens the risk of losing business, or having users become frustrated and upset by having to struggle with the site (which appears to be what’s happened here).

    Disagree with your comments on it being accessible because the eventual goal can be achieved. By the same logic, a building equipped only with stairs is wheelchair accessible, because if the individual tries hard enough they can *eventually* drag themselves up the stairs and inside. I think most people would (or should) be able to agree that if an order is really taking three days, there’s something going pretty wrong for her, and that it’s not unreasonable to hope for a better experience.

    Not to respond specifically to you (as a bunch of people have expressed similar views, some much less appropriately) – but it upsets me a little to see so many responses that seem to equate to “why should a business need to waste money on trying to avoid discriminatio n (explicit or implicit) in the way they deliver services online, just people had to go and have disabilities?”. I’m not a raging bogan who throws these sorts of things around, but this mentality doesn’t strike me as lining up with the traditional Australian values we often claim to have.

  • I only really have a university level understanding of IT/Web design (and a theoretical one at that – having never actually properly worked in the industry), but surely it can’t be that hard to have a separate “accessable” version of the site that is done in (or almost in) plain, high-contrast text that gets automatically updated when products are listed/removed/changed/updated. Surely all the background information is kept in databases anyway?

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!