December 31, 2007, 12:00 AM

Enabling Disabled Shoppers

Should a retailer ignore a market of more than 50 million people in the U.S. alone with $220 billion in discretionary spending?

In a global retail economy where customers can research, compare and shop for the best deals on products and services anytime and from anyplace, should a retailer ignore a market of more than 50 million people in the U.S. alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with aggregate annual income of more than $1 trillion and $220 billion in discretionary spending power?

Often considered a niche market, there actually are 750 million to 1 billion people with disabilities worldwide, according to the United Nations Population Reference Bureau, making them the single largest minority group. And careful examination of the latest statistics would suggest they are just waiting for the chance to do business with merchants.

The top three misconceptions about the disability market generally revolve around money, mobility and technology usage. In reality, the facts paint a much different picture. Not only do people with disabilities have money to spend, they are in stores and online in record numbers. Of the estimated 55 million people in the United States with disabilities, 73% are heads of households, 58% own homes and 48% are principal shoppers controlling over $220 billion in discretionary income, reports the Census Bureau and Solutions Marketing Group, a firm that provides research and consulting services for marketing to consumers with disabilities.

And according to a 2006 survey commissioned by the American Association of People with Disabilities and conducted by Public Opinion Research Inc., more than 70% of the association’s members choose to shop with specific retailers that demonstrate support for people with disabilities.

Multi-channel opportunity

Internet retailers are in a particularly unique position to take advantage of the market for people with disabilities. On average, 40% of people with disabilities conduct business and personal activities online, spending an average of 20 hours per week logged on to the Internet, Solutions Marketing Group says. That’s more time on average than people without disabilities spend online.

Accessibility is often associated with physical accommodations at bricks-and-mortar buildings, such as adding ramps or widening aisles to accommodate wheelchairs. While those are important and necessary steps, accessibility is actually a much bigger concept, particularly for today’s multi-channel retailers. In the online world, accessibility is the development and integration of systems, tools, structures and processes that facilitate the inclusion of more people-irrespective of their age, abilities, preferences or personal challenges-as valuable customers and members of the world community.

In a legal case currently before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the National Federation of the Blind charges that Target Corp. “failed and refused” to make accessible to blind people, putting it in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and two California civil rights statutes. Target contends it is committed to serving all of its guests, abides by all applicable laws and has improved its site to accommodate users of assistive technologies.

An integrated accessibility strategy that takes all delivery channels into account can help multi-channel retailers reach out to 76 million U.S. baby boomers (two-thirds of whom will acquire some type of disability after the age of 65), novice technology users and non-native language speakers. Ultimately, accessibility is about opening up all aspects of one’s business and making it possible for the greatest number of people to locate the business and learn about and buy products.

An accessible solution in the online world involves two parts. The first is the development of information technology-including systems and web sites-that follow recognized accessibility programming standards such as those outlined in the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Content Guidelines; or Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act; or Section III of the United Kingdom’s Disability Discrimination Act.

The second part is the use of assistive technologies by individuals, who are in turn able to take advantage of the properly programmed system. For example, a screen reader used by a blind person is not functional if a web site storefront she is visiting cannot provide the proper accessibility programming “hooks” to communicate with the screen reader. Both pieces must exist to have a successful, accessible solution.

Giving screens a voice

These hooks or accessibility guidelines are straightforward, well defined in the standards, and encompass approximately 15 different programming standards. A typical guideline is “alternative text,” also known as ALT-TEXT. This is a short, succinct description of a graphic, chart or picture most commonly seen by sighted users when placing a mouse cursor over a picture or graphic. That same description is used by the screen readers. With the ALT-TEXT description, the screen reader can read to the blind user the description of the graphic and place into context what she is navigating.

Without the ALT-TEXT on the graphic, the screen reader has nothing to read to the blind user or, even worse, provides a meaningless response such as the graphic file name. Another critical accessibility guideline is keyboard navigation. A mouse is useless to a blind person. A blind user’s experience is totally dependent upon navigating the web site with only keyboard input.

Retailers can incorporate these standards into their web site design to provide an accessible system, but it is important to be aware of the assistive technologies disabled Internet users most commonly use. Testing with the popular and critical assistive technologies should be part of the development process.

A couple of recommendations: expand testing routines to include screen readers such as Freedom Scientific’s Jaws, and use some specialized hardware such as a one-handed keyboard. Retailers also can add some basic assistive technology functionality. A popular option is to let shoppers change font size on web pages to assist users with low vision; another is to change color backgrounds for better contrast.

New opportunities

To tap into the market of serving consumers with disabilities, the first step is to understand who they are, where they shop and what they look for in a retailer. Of the 55 million people with disabilities in the United States, according to a Census Bureau report:

- 29.8% have mobility limitations

- 24.8% have limited hand use

- 16.4% have cognitive disabilities

- 11.9% have vision impairments

- 3.7% have speech or language difficulties

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