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.
Paul 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.