January 20, 2009, 12:00 AM

Retailers are beginning to design web sites for disabled consumers

Retailers including Canadian Tire and Home Hardware Stores are making their e-commerce sites more accessible with innovative technology that provides web page navigation without a conventional keyboard or computer mouse.

Retailers including Canadian Tire Corp. and Home Hardware Stores Ltd. are making their e-commerce sites more accessible with innovative technology that provides web page navigation without a conventional keyboard or computer mouse.

Canadian Tire and Home Hardware Stores have deployed technology from Essential Accessibility that gives people without full motor skills the ability to navigate web pages without regular use of a mouse or keyboard. The software comes in a variety of applications, providing handicapped computer users multiple ways to control web pages.

“At Home Hardware, we recognize the importance of accessibility in all dimensions of the customer experience,” says CEO Paul Straus. “It’s more than just the right thing to do. It’s good business practice.”

A disabled shopper, after arranging to download or receive a CD of free software from the retailer, simply needs to be able to exert pressure on an electronic device, such as with a fingertip press by someone who can’t move his hand side to side, or, for a paralyzed quadriplegic, with a head movement.

In one “radar mouse” application, for example, a red line that extends from the center to the outer edge of a web page slowly circles the page like a second hand on a watch. Once the shopper sees that the line is approaching a particular section of a web page-a shirt for sale, for instance-she engages the finger- or head-activated device to stop the moving line; a second press of the device will send an icon up the line toward the shirt; when the icon lands on the desired point of the page, such as the Buy button for the shirt, the shopper activates a third press of the device to make a purchase.

The same application works with an on-screen keyboard that enables the disabled shopper to enter information such as billing and shipping information.

Essential Accessibility charges retailers a flat monthly fee per web site, depending on traffic volume and page views or other site activity, says Simon Dermer, managing director.

Other applications support better deployments of technology designed to make sites more usable by blind people.

SSB Bart Group, for example, provides a web-based accessibility management platform, which shows whether a web site supports the deployment of assistive technologies like screen readers that turn images into audio files for blind people.

Screen readers include JAWS for Windows by Freedom Scientific Inc., Window-Eyes from GW Micro Inc., BrowseAloud by Texthelp Systems Ltd., and Easy Web Browsing from IBM Corp. Microsoft Corp.’s Vista operating system comes with the built-in Narrator screen reader as well as other tools including a text magnifier and an on-screen keyboard.

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