When online shopping turns into obstacle hopping

Perkins Access’ Joann Becker, who is blind, shares the aggravation of using inaccessible websites

Joann Becker sits at a desk using a computer

Joann Becker is a savvy user of technology, but inaccessible websites make it hard for her to shop online.

January 3, 2018

Joann Becker is as tech-savvy as a person can be. She worked for years for major technology companies. She’s trained hundreds of people on how to use assistive technology. She’s now a member of the Perkins Access digital accessibility consulting team at Perkins School for the Blind.

But even Becker, who’s blind, can still be tripped up by websites that aren’t designed with the needs of all users in mind – whether she’s trying to book a flight, take an online class or get groceries delivered.

“It’s amazingly impossible,” she says of trying to reserve a flight on an airline’s site or an aggregator site like Kayak. Those pop-up calendars you always encounter when you’re choosing departure and return dates? They’re incompatible with screen readers, software used by people who are blind to navigate their computers.

That means Becker has to take the extra step of calling the airline and being put on hold. Many airlines seek to discourage passengers from booking through the phone with a fee. They’re usually willing to waive it for Becker once she explains her situation, but that’s not good enough. “I want to be able to make these reservations myself independently.”

Like other working adults, Becker looks for opportunities for professional development. Once, she enrolled in an online course through a popular platform, but hit a roadblock when she needed to download a file to do an assignment. It was clearly there, identified by her screen reader, but no matter how she approached it, she couldn’t obtain the file.

When Becker gets stuck, she troubleshoots. She’ll skip the main navigation and pull up a list of links to see if she can find what she’s looking for that way. She’ll turn on a more advanced mode of JAWS, her screen reader, to mimic the movements of a mouse if the site can’t be navigated by keyboard. She’ll go into the website’s code, examining it with her coworkers to see if there’s a workaround.

But these aren’t practical solutions for someone just trying to accomplish an everyday task. These steps are time-consuming, complicated and unrealistic for the average user who’s visually impaired or has another disability.

“It’s annoying,” says Becker. “I just want to be able to do these things efficiently.”

Even sites Becker’s used seamlessly in the past can suddenly become unusable. She couldn’t buy anything from a major e-commerce site, for example, for a couple of months because they removed the label for the ‘sign in’ button during an update, keeping her from accessing her account. She couldn’t get groceries delivered from a grocery delivery site after selecting all her items and choosing a saved credit card because there was no way to pick a time for the box to be delivered. Since websites aren’t static, it’s always a guessing game as to whether they’ll remain accessible.

“They fix something, then they break something else,” she says.

Luckily, Becker’s part of a team that can address these problems. Perkins Access offers tailored consulting and solutions for companies and organizations looking to improve their websites and other digital assets.  

To make sure your website is accessible, download these three tips to learn how to alleviate some of the common problems that keep users with visual impairments or other disabilities from buying your products or getting the information they need. For more in-depth help, contact Perkins Access at Access@Perkins.org or 617-972-7868.