This year I am organised. Which in the run up to Christmas, is something akin to a minor miracle. The turkey is on order, the Christmas cake made, the Christmas cards have almost been written and even my gift shopping has practically all been done. There is but one trip left to the shopping mall, and the mere thought is taking the sparkle off my seasonal thoughts.
So what has prompted this flurry of activity? It began with the first Christmas after I lost my eyesight.
I did what most people do and went shopping in the nearest mall. Several hours later, I emerged. Battered by an incessant crowd of people who, heedless of the season of good will, had been barging past me with regular monotony. Frustrated by having to ask someone to recite endless items available on hundreds of shelves and disheartened by the whole affair, I thought to myself: There has to be a better way.
The next year I tried the Internet. I could take my time, explore all the options for myself, without having to ask someone to do it for me. If you remember the first time you were old enough to spend your own pocket money on a gift for someone in your family, the first time that you were able to choose that gift for yourself, then you'll appreciate the anticipation with which I looked forward to being an independent shopper once again.
Except it didn't work out quite that way. I found one web site after another that was chock full of possibilities, teeming with gifts and stocking fillers for all the family, only to discover I couldn't use them.
More often than not, sites would offer no product descriptions, only pictures. The pictures didn't have alternative textual descriptions, so I was still in the dark. Shopping carts were possibly the worst of all. On more than one occasion I'd struggle to accumulate a basket full of shopping, only to find that the checkout was inaccessible and I'd be back to square one. It did nothing to abate my frustration, as I helplessly yelled "bah humbug!" at my computer and returned to the shopping mall. It was like being outside the candy shop, able to understand what lay beyond the window, but utterly incapable of reaching out and taking what I wanted.
That was three years ago and since then something wonderful has begun to happen. It began with the odd site that I'd find by accident. Small independent gift shops that had taken the time to consider their customers and who had understood the benefit of throwing open their Internet doors to the widest possible audience. Slowly, like dragging a sledge back up a snow covered hill, I accumulated a list of sites offering accessible shopping. Each time I found another one it was like jumping on the sledge and racing down the hill again, happy to enjoy the exhilarating experience.
The random snowflake here and there has steadily grown into a flurry of accessible web sites but, as with any good Christmas tale, there is a Scrooge waiting in the shadows.
Accessibility is still not prevalent enough across the board. Many well known and trusted high street stores are refusing to spread good will to all people by preventing many from shopping online. Product descriptions are vague or completely absent, product selection forms are not usable, aisles and shelves are badly organised and page elements like buttons, images, advertising banners and sometimes even content itself are placed just out of reach of people with disabilities.
Despite this, things are looking up. I find myself humming Christmas carols instead of wanting to clout the Christmas fairy. Certainly, I'm still prone to moments of distinctly un-Christmas like irritation, brought on by my inability to carry out the most simple of online tasks and I'll even have to return to the mall this year to grab one or two last minute items. But I have been able to do almost all my Christmas shopping on the Internet this year. It could have been easier - I had to start at the beginning of November to be certain I had enough time to search out those places where shopping was both easy and desirable and it could have been more accessible - I often have to ask people to describe a picture in greater detail, but it's been noticeably less frustrating this year and I hope that things can only get better.
In the years to come I have a single goal when it comes to Christmas shopping: To be able to do the entire lot without leaving my house. Cup of tea in hand, I'd like to be able to wander through the aisles of whichever shop I chose, examining each item in sufficient detail to allow me to decide for myself if it was suitable or not.
I would like to find sites where the content was structured, the images described, the information architecture simple and most of all I would like to see a shopping cart that didn't make my shopping vanish quicker than the mince pies on Christmas Day.
As more commercial site owners realise that accessibility is a necessary part of corporate social responsibility, they will come to appreciate the straight forward return on investment that awaits them: The more people able to easily shop on a site, the more revenue it will generate and you can bet the money won't be chocolate in this case!
Time and time again we hear that pre Christmas sales are disappointingly low, that high street stores are struggling to meet expected profit margins, yet curiously many of them continue to ignore the 1 in 7 people in the UK who would find the ability to shop easily online the greatest Christmas gift of all.
As Christmas Eve arrives, stop and think a moment. Consider Christmas, the snow falling gently outside, a fire crackling in the grate and stockings hung up with care. Ask yourself a simple question: Why would you want to do battle with hundreds of marauding Christmas shoppers, all frantically trying to find the last bargain in the shop, when with a little effort from high street stores, you could have done it all without being more than 20 feet from the kettle and a nice lovely cup of tea?