Do the Disabled Really Buy Sporting Goods?

28 Jun

While working on a website we are redesigning, I was seeing some minor usability/accessibility issues that I was concerned about. I brought up those issues, mentioning that the site would be significantly less functional in some cases to those with disabilities, such as the vision-impaired and physically handicapped persons for whom using a mouse is difficult. That was when someone asked, “Do blind people actually buy sporting goods?”.

In their defense, the speaker asked the question in good faith, and they were thinking of snowboards, golf clubs and footballs when they said it. It took me only a second to respond perhaps not, and to ask if they had considered sweatpants, baseball caps, knee braces and more. Suddenly, it was more pertinent, and I decided to look into the question – do the disabled really buy sporting goods, or more specifically, do they buy them online?

Online sporting goods and the disabled

The obvious answers are yes and yes. The less obvious answer is yes, but not without significant hassle and difficulty. I surveyed a number of major e-commerce sporting goods sites, as well as a number of smaller ones. I also searched for sporting goods sites that catered to the disabled, either via the products or to service that segment of the population with ‘normal’ sporting goods items.


I found 15 stores in total: 6 general retail stores, 4 specialized stores/merchants and 5 specific-target stores (those that either provided products for the disabled or were geared toward the disabled). And the findings were disappointing to say the least.

Study Major Retailers Specialty Retailers Targeted Stores
Number of Stores 6 4 5
Table-based 6 3 5
CSS Used 6 4 2
Aural Stylesheet 0 0 0
Access Keys 0 0 0
508(c) Compliance 0 0 2
508(c) Failures 41 42 23
JavaScript Off* 1 2 0/1
CSS Off* 6 2 0/2
Images Off* 0 2 1
Resizable Font 2 4 5

*: Stores that worked with this function turned off
1: no alt tags, no alternative to multimedia, no <noscript> tags, no skip links provided)
2: no alt tags, no alternative to multimedia, no <noscript> tags, no skip links provided)
3: no alt tags, no skip links provided)

The results: I would say that the fact that almost every site functioned with CSS disabled was good, but in many cases it was simply because they were tabled-based sites that really couldn’t break (one argument for tables). However, tables are not supposed to be for layout, but that’s another rant. Strangely, however, the non-table-based site failed miserably when CSS was disabled, as well.The major retailers failed in some basic U/A concerns, most notably the lack of alt text (which is a simple inclusion). The fact that most of them have no way to resize text is a failing since some of the sites use very small text sizes to start with. The specialized retailer sites really did no better, and in some ways were worse. I have to say that these weren’t small companies, so I know that expertise and funding isn’t exactly a huge problem – yet they are horribly designed for accessibility.The smallest retailers – the ones who focused on goods for or marketing to the disabled, faired poorly – made even worse in that they knew who there audience was and still missed essential checks for those same users. In many cases, the sites themselves are woefully designed. To be fair, these are retailers constrained by small budgets for redesigns, but again you would think that sites that are geared toward the disabled would have better accessibility. While two of these sites actually passed the 508(c) standards, one of those did so because their site was built with technology not even tested any longer in 508(c), so got a free ride.One of the biggest problems overall – and more prevalent as the scale of the site increased – was the heavy reliance on JavaScript (in all forms, including AJAX) for pizzazz and enhanced functionality. There’s nothing wrong with that and in fact if you disable JavaScript (which 6-8% of users do), you have to do so understanding that you are going to lose much of the experience that these sites offer. However, that shouldn’t mean that you can’t navigate the site, can’t find products on the site, and especially can’t add items to your cart or purchase a product. These scripts should enhance the underlying code of these functions, not replace them.

While the 508(c) standard states “equivalent functions”, in my decidedly unscientific tests, I didn’t fail a site because a user couldn’t see a nicer picture, use a dropdown nav (as long as other navigation still functioned), or watch videos with JavaScript. I did record a failure if they couldn’t navigate or – as happens all too often, add an item to their cart – functions essential to an e-commerce site. I took the same approach to images: if you go to an e-commerce site featuring this type of products with images turned off, you have to expect a degradation of your user experience. However, alt tags should replace much of the content¹, and sites failed when the entire navigation disappeared with the images.

So, the results were disappointing top to bottom, which leads to 2 questions: what is a disabled person supposed to do, and what can the retailers – at all levels – do to help them?

Is it worth it?

One may wonder what the call for accessibility is for a sporting goods site. While usability and accessibility should be considered for ALL sites – as recommended by the federal guideline 508(c) in the U.S. – there are also valid business reasons for considering usability and accessibility.

  1. There are sporting goods stores which cater directly to the disabled to service this underserved market. Example: (Ironically, this site fails most accessibility tests, since it focuses on paraplegics, not those with other disabilities).
  2. The disabled can buy sports equipment, and often will do so online to avoid the trip to the store. For those with lower paraplegia, using the web is not a difficulty. However, those with upper body disabilities often use methods other than a mouse to navigate the web. Navigation should take this into account.
  3. While perhaps not participating in physical sports, the visually-impaired can still buy “sportswear” as well.
  4. Not all purchases would be for the purchaser. Some, like any other shopper, would be gifts for others.Example: This user was rating their expereince on this site, and while it doesn’t address the accessibility of the site, it shows a disabled user buying sports equipment.

    Excellent – December 28, 2005
    Reviewer: a customer via post-transaction survey
    Reviewer’s rating: 5 stars
    Price: 5 bars
    Shipping Options: 5 bars
    Delivery: 5 bars
    Ease of Purchase: 5 bars
    Customer Service: 5 bars
    This was my 1rst purchase from this kidsportsinc, & it was one of the best online shopping experiences I have ever had (Ive had some real nightmares with other merchants, including this Christmas). Im disabled & cant drive, so I do do most of my shopping online. Therefore, I deal with tons of different online merchants, & I do a lot of price comparisons before ordering. I ordered 2 Deluxe Hoops to Go portable basketball systems right before Christmas (Tons of places were out of stock on this item, & my son & grandchildren really wanted this for Christmas). The price was $10 – $30 lower than other sites, & they delivered before the promised date. Ill definitely purchase from them again. Thanks kidsportsinc for great products, prices & service. Ill recomend you to everyone I know. Donna R. from IL. …
    from Yahoo Shopping

  5. Standards/usability/accessibility isn’t just for the disabled.

Addressing the issue

In my research, I discovered three very important facts about sports e-commerce and the disabled:

  • None of the major e-commerce sports retailers are very accessible.
  • There are very few sites online for the disabled to purchase sports equipment that is a) geared toward the disabled or b) have sites geared toward disabled users.
  • Those sites that do target the disabled tend to be (ironically) very far from usable/accessible by today’s standards

So, what can be done? Well, basic usability and accessibility standards are a great start – things like alt tags, skip links, etc. Other fixes are a bit larger in scope, particularly for an industry that builds its reputation on the look and feel of its displays (think Nike, Under Armour, any golf company). Gracefully degrading code for non-JavaScript users, aural style sheets for the visually impaired and the like are great things to think about, but harder to implement.

I’d love to think that complete overhauls to the sites were an option but that’s unlikely, at least in the short term. But some relatively simple fixes could be put into place to greatly improve the sites:

  • Adding alt tags (the correct ones) to all applicable images
  • creating print and aural stylesheets – which can be done to the existing sites, and you don’t even need to change the site beyond adding the calls to the new stylesheets.
  • Make fonts resizable with ems or keyword sizes.
  • Add access key functionality for important functions, especially to bypass JavaScript
  • Make sure that critical functions (like Add to Cart) still work even without JavaScript

These are just the beginning of the fixes, some small and some large. But all are critical to making these sites actually usable for people with a variety of disabilities.

notes »
¹ in many cases, alt text for product images does not exist, however, the name of the item was next to the image so the alt text was somewhat redundant.

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