The Coles web accessibility case – two important lessons for corporate Australia

It was a pretty normal Wednesday night on 5 November last year. I was watching ABC News 24 to catch up on the day’s top stories and it was my wife, who is also a web accessibility professional, who alerted me to the news bar at the bottom of the screen stating that a blind woman had launched a claim of unlawful discrimination against Coles over its inaccessible website.

Since then, most of us in the web accessibility community have been following the case closely, and with its recent settlement it’s a good time to reflect on lessons learnt and what corporate Australia should consider to avoid being in the same predicament again.

Firstly, for the benefit of international readers, what is Coles? According to the about section of its hopefully-rapidly-improving-in-accessibility website:

“For over 100 years, Coles has continued to deliver quality products, outstanding customer service and great value to millions of Australians. Today, our long term commitment to helping Australia grow means we’re working towards a sustainable future, forming lasting relationships with Aussie farmers, and supporting local jobs in the food industry.”

While the public relations statement suggests it’s all sunshine and rainbows in the supermarket industry these days, the corporate reality is that Coles is big business, representing 33.5 per cent of the total Australian grocery market. Combined with its main competitor, Woolworths, the result is a duopoly across many parts of Australia.

Last year Coles and Woolworths had a market share of 72.5 per cent of the $82 billion Australian grocery sector. Both companies, and Coles’ parent company Wesfarmers, also have large stakes in other businesses, including petrol, liquor and recently the provision of insurance and personal loans. While debate rages over whether two companies should have this much control in Australia, the relevance here is that if you can’t get access to the website of Coles to buy your groceries, there isn’t a lot of other choices for consumers. And the influence of the Coles and Woolworths is expanding.

The case

Returning to the case against Coles, the legal action was brought by Gisele Mesnage, legally blind from birth, who stated to the media that the evolution of online grocery shopping had “changed her life”. As a legally blind person I agree with this wholeheartedly. I was also using online grocery shopping in 2000, long before it became popular, because with my vision it was difficult to find things in the shops and online shopping made it much easier to find items and then have them delivered. 

In Gisele’s case it seemed that this worked well for a time, but the delivery options were broken in a 2013 update. As Gisele states:

"Since 2008 I have been trying to use the Coles online website and there were quite a lot of issues, including one where I couldn't select the delivery time, which was fixed in 2010."

"For about three-and-a-half years I managed to use the website, select the delivery time, and do my orders unassisted.”

"But then in September 2013, Coles launched a new upgrade of the website and since then it's been extremely difficult for me to create an order and lodge the order independently."

From there the process involved Giselle complaining to Coles, nothing being changed, and the complaint heading to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Not the first time – Maguire v. SOCOG  

In an earlier column, Do legal precedents help the accessibility cause?, I talked about the other, and arguably first, high-profile case relating to web accessibility. For those not aware of the case, in 1999 a blind man named Bruce Maguire required ticketing and event information for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. He found that the information available on the official Olympic Games website was inaccessible, primarily due to the use of images without alternative text. 

After contacting the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG), Maguire discovered that there were no plans to rectify the situation. As such, the issue regarding the inaccessibility of the website was raised with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). Maguire's argument was based largely on the premise that the accessibility of the website should comply with the WCAG 1.0 standard. The outcome was that while Maguire won the case the website was not fixed, but Olympic websites have been notably better when it comes to accessibility ever since.

Outcomes and comparisons

While these are not the only two web accessibility complaints to have occurred in Australia, with several others settled before they received media attention, their high profile does lead to some important questions: What are the ramifications of web accessibility for companies? Are there any parallels between the cases? What are the lessons to learn?

Returning again to the Coles case, it was revealed two weeks ago that a settlement was reached regarding the improvement of the Coles website. The joint statement read:

“Coles recognises the importance of accessibility and is committed to continuing to improve the online shopping experience for everyone.

“Coles would like to thank and acknowledge Ms. Mesnage for the work she has done to improve accessibility for Australians.”

So in this case it appears that, unlike SOCOG, there will be changes made. Indeed, even before the settlement was announced a message appeared on the Coles checkout saying that if people were experiencing issues due to accessibility they should get in touch.

While the SOCOG and Coles cases were different in many ways, there are some important similarities. The biggest, from a web accessibility point of view, is that the complaints were less about accessing information and more about completing a process. Whether it was buying a ticket for the Olympics or buying groceries at Coles, the completion of a process is one of the few black-and-white issues of web accessibility – you can either do it or you can’t.

One of the big problems with web accessibility is the difficulty in explaining the precise nature of an accessibility issue. Yes, the screen reader may be able to read out a large part of a web page, but trying to explain the specific bits that are a problem can be a very challenging process.

In these cases, though, and in other prominent international cases, it’s often not about the broad accessibility of a website, but rather it’s specific to addressing the issue of a complainant saying, “I can’t do X.” While fixing specific issues is still important, the irony is that if the focus were on standards when the website was built, rather than just on process or technology, it’s unlikely this situation would have occurred.

Two key lessons

In my view there are two important lessons to be learnt from these web accessibility cases. The first is the need to ensure that WCAG 2.0 is implemented and consistently maintained.

Before the legal action commenced I had visited the Coles website on a number of occasions, and one of the things that struck me about its accessibility policy six months ago was that there was no mention at all of WCAG 2.0. The whole policy was geared around explaining how the website had been optimised for JAWS.

While it’s good to see that they were at least considering accessibility, it’s tough for any web developer to maintain accessibility support if the focus is only on one assistive technology rather than the implementation of standards. The big risk is that people with other disabilities are likely to face challenges that aren’t considered, and the goalposts around which technology is best often shift.

With VoiceOver on iOS and NVDA on Windows now being used by a large portion of likely Coles visitors, just keeping an eye on JAWS issues means that critical issues are likely to fall through the cracks, and this is what appears to have happened here.

Rather than focusing on one task or one technology, a shift in the culture of the company and putting standards as the heart of development will create an effective starting point for addressing other issues quickly.

The second lesson—and one which it appears Coles has learnt well—is the need to be open to complaints and address them quickly. With so many people in so many roles working on a corporate website, especially one the size of Coles or the Sydney Olympics at the time, it’s probable that accessibility issues will creep in. The question then is how to handle them.

If you are reading this as a staff member of a corporation, consider the following:  How would someone complain to your company if they have a web accessibility issue? Would their email or phone call actually reach a person? How would that person action the complaint? Would the person complaining receive regular updates to their complaint? Would the issue actually get fixed in a timely manner? If someone has an issue and their initial experience is emailing a webmaster address that is never viewed, or the company just hopes the person will forget about their problem and go away, then companies will continue to learn the hard way that if people with disabilities can’t get a resolution to “I can’t do X”, then they will keep fighting.

So to Coles and the rest of corporate Australia I’d encourage you to consider the importance of WCAG 2.0 and related web standards, along with a supportive complaints process. Perhaps then we could return our attention to your prices going ‘down, down’ instead of your website’s accessibility level.