Practical Ecommerce

Quick Query: Joe Dolson of Accessible Web Design

There are millions of disabled Internet users who are unable to use a website in a traditional manner, and making sure a site functions for sight impaired, deaf or disabled users is called “accessibility.” To learn more about the topic, we spoke with Joseph C. Dolson, president and founder of Accessible Web Design, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based firm that designs and consults on accessibility matters.

PeC: Approximately how many users on the web depend on accessibility help?

Joe Dolson Dolson: “It’s probably as high as 10 percent of the population, possibly higher.”

PeC: You have written about new accessibility standards recently adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium. What is the World Wide Web Consortium?

Dolson: “The World Wide Web Consortium, also known as W3C, is an international group of companies and technical experts who meet to decide standards that will be commonly used by browser manufacturers, website designers, and all sorts of other creators of software that interacts online to have a common base. It includes Apple, Microsoft, and other big tech companies, as well as members from all across the world who are just casual experts to advise on issues.”

PeC: How is it that W3C is the entity that determines accessibility standards?

Dolson: “The W3C is far from the only group that has decided on accessibility standards. There are actually many different sets of accessibility standards, but the W3C is responsible for deciding what HTML is and what XHTML is, and the nature of those technologies. So, they are very well positioned to look at those technologies and determine how they should be able to interact with users. They also have a set of guidelines for creators of technology, such as assistive technology on browsers, on how they should interact with that technology to make it available for accessibility. It’s a very broad-reaching organization.”

PeC: Your firm is Accessible Web Design. Could you tell us more about your background, your firm’s work, and how you came to focus on accessibility issues?

Dolson: “Well, I came into accessibility before I went into web design and development. My mother has long worked in accessibility for the arts and education, and I grew up steeped in the idea that there is a way to make everything available to people who might have a disability. So, I decided right from the beginning that I was going to bring the concern of accessibility into my business.”

PeC: What are some common accessibility problems that you see when you visit ecommerce sites?

Dolson: “Well, one of the biggest ones is actually with the check-out process. There’s a common tendency to create forms and displays that can pose a lot of limitations for people with disabilities. Obviously, if a user can’t get through your check-out, you’re in trouble.”

PeC: Give us an example of how a form can be inaccessible.

Dolson: “If controls are improperly labeled, a user might not be able to associate particular functions with a particular piece of information. A submit button can be created in such a manner that it can only be triggered by using a mouse, and blind users most certainly are not able to use a mouse or a pointing device.”

“There might not be appropriate ALT attributes in an image-based button, which would mean that sight-impaired users don’t know what the button is for. If you can’t distinguish between a “Submit Your Order” button and a “Cancel Your Order” button, there’s a good chance you’re not going to place that order.”

“There is also a strong tendency to put things like shipping policies or return policies into pop-ups, which may not be usable by people with disabilities. When it opens in new window, there may not be any announcement notifying them that this is now present and they need to read it. If the user can’t identify how you’re going to ship things, or what they can do if there’s a problem, they will also be reluctant to order.”

PeC: Anything else you think our readers should know about accessibility?

Dolson: “The biggest thing for a small ecommerce merchant is to always remember that they are trying to sell to purchasers, not to users. Even though your products may not be usable by somebody who’s blind, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to purchase them. People with visual disabilities do buy gifts. Your customer and your product end user are not necessarily the same person, and you should never eliminate the likelihood of a disabled user on the basis of what you’re selling.”

Practical Ecommerce

Practical Ecommerce

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