Elin Williams writes a lot about her love of fashion and beauty in her award-winning disability and lifestyle blog My Blurred World.

As well as being an Able Magazine columnist and National Diversity Awards 2019 nominee she was voted one of the most influential disabled people in the UK in 2018.

Blogger Elin Williams stands outside holding a brochure for the Shawtrust Power 100 List 2018 for Britain's most influential disabled people.
Image courtesy of My Blurred World

Diagnosed with the eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa at age six, she was registered blind at 12 years old. She now uses a screen reader to navigate the online world.

We asked her about her experiences with online accessibility, and whether e-commerce fashion sites could be doing more for their blind and visually impaired customers.

How does your visual impairment affect how you shop online?

I have a degenerative eye condition so a few years ago, I was able to use the zoom feature on my laptop and phone to see the items I was browsing online. But in the last few years, my sight has deteriorated dramatically so I now use a screen reader. It can prove tricky at times since the accessibility of websites is often lacking.

As a fashion and lifestyle blogger, what are the difficulties you experience when buying clothes and cosmetics online?

It’s difficult when a website isn’t accessible with my screen reader and when there’s a lack of descriptions on clothing items especially. If the product description does not have enough detail, I cannot paint a picture of the item in my mind. It often means I have to disregard it.

Are there any especially good fashion or retail websites you have experienced for accessibility?

There’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of online accessibility, so there’s not one that stands out specifically.

I find myself browsing ASOS often because, for me, it’s one of the more accessible e-commerce websites. The buttons are well-labelled, and a lot of their clothing items have good descriptions. The TOPSHOP website is getting better for product descriptions too, but it can be hit and miss.

Which features make a website more accessible, or easier to use?

It helps when the search option is labelled and easy to find on websites. So, if I’ve got a specific item that I’d like to find, it’s easy to use this feature and filter the results from there.

Have you experienced any particularly bad websites for accessibility?

The Boots website used to be very inaccessible to me. The website was cluttered and many of the buttons were unlabelled. Empty, unlabelled buttons cannot be read out by most screen readers, including mine. I think it’s improved a little now, but I used to avoid the site knowing I was unable to navigate it independently.

With fashion retailers, I find that the Zara website can be tricky to navigate. My screen reader tends to jump from one section of the site to another. I think they may have implemented some accessibility features on the site now, but I’m yet to try them.

If a website isn’t accessible, I always click off and try to find an alternative.

Elin

Which elements make fashion and clothing websites harder to use?

It can be tricky to navigate these websites if they are too cluttered. My screen reader will end up jumping from one part of the website to another when I don’t want it to.

Laptop open on a bed, surrounded by makeup, perfume and magazines. The screen is open on My Blurred World, Elin Williams' lifestyle blog.
Image courtesy of My Blurred World

But I also found cluttered websites difficult to navigate when I just used the zoom feature. I couldn’t concentrate on one element of the site and it used to make my eyes feel tired.

Again, it’s frustrating when buttons aren’t labelled because my screen reader will only read ‘button’ instead of its purpose. It means I’m reluctant to click on it as I have no idea where it could lead me.

How does it make you feel when a company’s website is inaccessible?

It always proves frustrating. I feel like I’m missing out on being able to do something so simple, because of my vision impairment.

A fully sighted person can search for a website and find what they’re looking for almost instantly. But that’s much more difficult as a visually impaired person. It makes me feel like we’re an afterthought when accessibility is overlooked.

Can you describe what typically happens when you come across an inaccessible website and cannot complete a task?

(For example, you find another website, ask someone to help you, abandon the purchase, go to the physical shop instead.)

If a website isn’t accessible, I always click off and try to find an alternative. But, if there’s something specific I want to find on that site, I normally ask a sighted person for their help. Though, I’m not overly keen on this as it can feel like I’m being denied a little of my independence.

If you had a message for online fashion retailers, what would it be?

The main thing I would urge fashion websites to do is add more detailed descriptions to their products. Simply so blind and visually impaired people have a better idea of what they are browsing.

However, it’s just as important to make sure the website is accessible before we reach the items themselves. Ensuring that all buttons are correctly labelled and that the homepage is not too cluttered, for starters.

I think it’s important to remember that blind and visually impaired people can have an interest in fashion too. We should be considered a consumer just as much as someone who is fully sighted.

What’s the biggest change you would like to see in website accessibility?

That’s a tricky one since there are so many things that I’d like to see change with online accessibility.

I think it’s important to keep things simple. Remember, it’s still possible to have a stunning looking website which is accessible too. And bear in mind that vision-impaired people want to use websites as much as sighted people do.

(Read Elin’s article “Why do you care about fashion if you’re blind?” (My Blurred World) if you want to know more about the stereotypes visually impaired people face.)

I would love to see simpler designs that are easier to navigate, with:

  • Well-labelled buttons
  • Clear link text
  • Good colour contrast between background and foreground elements
  • More detailed product descriptions

All these simple features make navigation so much easier for screen reader users.

Thank you to Elin for taking the time to talk to us. You can check out the My Blurred World Blog for more posts about living with a visual impairment.

If you’re disabled, you can report your online accessibility experiences, like Elin’s, using The Big Hack Feedback Tool. The responses we receive will be taken to businesses to encourage them to build more accessible websites, apps and digital services.