December 31, 2007, 12:00 AM

Enabling Disabled Shoppers

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In fact, compared with 27% of adults without disabilities, almost half of people with disabilities say the Internet has significantly improved their quality of life, Solutions Marketing Group says. For many people with disabilities, the Internet has created new opportunities to live independently and autonomously-working, shopping, conducting financial transactions or simply buying movie tickets- without leaving home or requiring in-store assistance.

The self-service component that makes the Internet so appealing for people with disabilities can and should be translated to the point of sale. Take, for example, the self-service, web-enabled kiosks that have become so prevalent in retail stores, banks, hotels and airports. These kiosks not only increase the efficiency and convenience of shopping and travel but can play an important role in creating a positive customer experience for increasingly busy consumers.

But how does one take advantage of that technology if she is deaf or blind, or has mobility challenges? Today the answer, generally, is she can’t. For example, a kiosk that has only touch-screen input is challenging, and sometimes impossible, for a person with a hand tremor to use.

New legislation, such as the State of California Civil Code 54.9-which now requires hotels and public transportation facilities to make touch-screen devices accessible by 2009 for people who are blind or who have low vision-may soon provide a powerful impetus for the retail industry to ensure that point-of-sale kiosks are accessible as well. IBM is betting the trend will take off, and is developing accessible self-service kiosk prototypes designed to help meet the needs of clients in the travel, transportation and hospitality industries.

Better self service

In addition to the basic touch-screen capability, an accessible kiosk requires an audio output, an alternative keypad or full keyboard for input, and improved navigation of the screen content. With the audio output, also known as text-to-speech, a blind user can plug in a set of headphones and listen to what is being read from the screen in a logical manner. One simply navigates around the screen by using the directional arrows on the keypad, with the position and content being read to the blind user via the audio output. When a selection is required, another key on the keypad is used to confirm the choice. This same keypad set-up works for a person with a hand tremor.

Why is self-service important online or at a kiosk if one is disabled? Retailers reap the benefits of lower costs and faster service. People without disabilities enjoy the speed, convenience and privacy of transactions. The disabled want these same benefits.

Consider this: For adults with disabilities who spend a good portion of their day asking for assistance from others, anything that can be done independently is of tremendous value. Providing that value as a retailer can potentially translate into repeat business.

But incorporating accessibility into a multi-channel retail business requires more than isolated solutions that address specific consumer access points. Technology in and of itself is not the answer. To meet the unique, long-term needs of the disability market segment, multi-channel retailers must have a broad, integrated strategy and plan for success.

Multi-channel retailers should have an overall, repeatable accessibility approach that is woven into the company’s day-to-day processes. In the physical world nowadays, wheelchair ramps are part of the building design process. The same integrated accessibility process should apply in the I.T. world in building and updating web sites. Having a solid corporate accessibility policy with accountability will help avoid costly and difficult remediation of applications not built to standards.

With a well-executed strategy and plan, multi-channel retailers will discover that accessibility need not affect great web site or store design or dilute a company’s brand or aesthetic. It really is part of great design and works well in benefiting the image of any multi-channel retailer.

Common sense consistently demonstrates that what works well and is developed specifically for people with disabilities generally benefits everyone. Closed captioning originally implemented for the deaf for television certainly comes in handy for sports bar patrons watching their favorite NFL team. Having a web site that addresses accessibility guidelines as basic as color and contrast standards means one less consumer squinting in an attempt to read a poor design-or worse-leaving the site in search of a competitor’s that is easier to read and use.

Lynne Brown is an accessibility expert and business development specialist in IBM Corp.’s Worldwide Accessibility Center within the IBM Research Division. She is leading accessibility efforts for IBM across several industries, with a special emphasis on e-commerce. She can be reached at

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