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E-business: Big stores fail web test for disabled.

Byline: Steve Pain Technology Editor

Just one of the UK's five most prominent supermarkets has a website which meets the basic accessibility needs of disabled customers, according to new figures from West Midlands-based computing and disability charity AbilityNet.

The charity says that only Tesco's alternative website - www.tesco.com/access - can be easily accessed by people with a vision impairment, dyslexia or physical disability making mouse use difficult, and gains a four-star rating on AbilityNet's five-star scale.

AbilityNet said that none of the other sites passed even basic levels of accessibility and as a consequence, are losing out on a massive market opportunity.

Sainsburys' site - www.sainsburys.co.uk - received just one star. Morrisons' site - www.moreasons.co.uk - was given a similar rating, as was Asda's site - www.asda.co.uk. Somerfield - www.somerfield.co.uk - was given two stars, as was Tesco's mainstream site - www.tesco.com.

The results are broadly in line with findings from earlier AbilityNet surveys into websites operated by leading airlines, newspapers and banks - industry sectors that, like supermarkets, have generally led the move into e-business and online operation, all of which failed basic accessibility tests. All the supermarkets surveyed were asked by AbilityNet to make a public commitment to accessibility.

To date Sainsburys, Asda and Morrisons have done so, with both Asda and Morrisons pledging to make their home shopping facilities DDA-compliant in the near future.

Robin Christopherson, AbilityNet's web consultancy manager - himself blind - said: 'Recently published research by the Disability Rights Commission shows that able-bodied visitors also benefit from accessible websites, finding information easier and quicker to locate by some 35 per cent, so the commercial argument is overwhelming. When we order our groceries online we are seeking critical functionality - namely speed and efficiency, not a life-changing experience.

'Accessible sites are simply easier to use: they improve productivity for everyone.'

International website usability guru, Jacob Nielsen, agreed. 'Fancy media on websites typically fails user testings,' he said.

'Simple text and clear photos not only communicate better with users, they also enhance users' feelings of control and thus support the web's mission as an instant gratification environment.'

Julie Howell, digital policy development officer at the RNIB, corroborated this view: 'Many fully-sighted people find Tesco's simply designed Access site offers them a better user experience than any other supermarket website,' she said.

'Developed for vision-impaired users, it now takes a surprising pounds 13 million a year, and seems to attract a much wider audience than originally intended.'

Mr Christopherson said: 'The internet is all about inclusivity.

'There is no reason why your site can't be both accessible and professional. Plans for Tesco to combine the best aspects of their main and Access sites later this year is good news.'

Typical problems encountered by Christopherson and his team included:

Text size on most sites is 'hard-coded' making it difficult to enlarge - vital for many visitors who have a vision impairment.

The text labels attached to images upon which blind visitors and text browser users rely for an explanation, are often uninformative or completely absent. Without these spoken labels on graphical links, navigation for a blind visitor is pure guesswork.

Pictures of text are often used instead of actual text. This not only means that the user cannot modify the text size or colour contrast - essential for those with a vision impairment or dyslexia - it also prevents screen reader users from reading the content when, as so frequently happens, these images are left unlabelled.

AbilityNet warns that E-businesses are losing out on a market worth millions a year simply by failing minimum accessibility standards.

The buying power of disabled people in the UK is estimated to be over pounds 60 billion.
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 29, 2004
Words:615
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