December 19, 2001, 12:00 AM

User accessibility will be mainstream site design issue, says Forrester

With disabled consumers controlling $175 billion in discretionary income and government agencies already required to equip sites with special-needs tools, e-retailers should put site accessibility into next year’s plan.

Think handicapped accessibility applies only to wheelchair ramps and wide doorways? Not so, says a new report by Forrester Research Inc.`s launch last week of Amazon Access, a streamlined version of its e-commerce site for use by the visually impaired, is among the first signs of what will emerge as a mainstream e-commerce trend over the next few years: equipping consumer web sites for use by the disabled, Forrester says.

“Government action and an aging online population will make web site accessibility a priority over the next two years,” says Forrester analyst Randy Souza. Consumers with disabilities control an estimated $175 billion in discretionary income, and companies that accommodate customers’ special needs – including online retailers -- can reap benefits in customer loyalty, Forrester says. For example, the National Captioning Institute found that 53% of hearing-impaired TV viewers make an extra effort to buy from brands that support captioning, and that 38% will change from favorite brands to do so.

Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act requires that government agencies and some of their vendors make their sites accessible to users with disabilities. Though retail faces little legislative oversight on this issue now, Forrester predicts that the government could mandate private-sector accessibility within five years.

Retrofitting a site with tools to improve access, such as software that reads content aloud for users who don’t see well, or creating a speech interface for users who have difficulty manipulating a keyboard, may cost in the area of $160,000, but the price falls considerably if accessibility is front-loaded into a new site design or complete redesign.

“Retail firms should put web site accessibility into next year’s plan,” says Souza.


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