2000 Conference Proceedings

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MAKING E-COMMERCE ACCESSIBLE TO PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES IN AUSTRALIA AND OTHER COUNTRIES

Tim Noonan
SoftSpeak Computer Services
Blind Citizens, Australia
tnoonan@softspeak.com.au



WHAT IS ELECTRONIC COMMERCE?

Electronic commerce (usually shortened to E-Commerce) is a very broad term and includes common-place activities such as use of Automatic Teller Machines, telephone banking, use of the internet to find, order and pay for goods and services, use of the internet or the telephone to access financial information, the emerging area of smart cards, and much much more.

The area is often also extended to include online Government information, electronic publishing developments, completion of online forms – this broader group of activities sometimes being termed the ‘Information Economy’.

Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and a variety of other sources are demonstrating the momentum with which electronic commerce is taking hold in our society. More people are now using the Internet (at home, work and elsewhere) than ever before, more people are buying goods over the Internet, the banks are having increasing success with electronic banking (particularly Internet banking) and the Australian Government has the stated objective of implementing a world class model for delivery of all appropriate government services online by 2001, as well as an intention to eliminate the majority of paper-based requirements for most financial transactions.

Keith Hazelton, IT Architect at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the following about E-Commerce:

"It is now possible to conduct virtually any traditional business function electronically, from marketing to sales to delivery to post-sales support to accounting, customer service and business-to-business links."

However many of these exciting possibilities promised by E-Commerce may be denied to a significant number of people, due to the lack of planning for and appropriate consideration of the particular needs of people with disabilities. this concerning situation is the focus of our research and this presentation.


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Our RESEARCH PROJECT

Although accessibility for much PC-based software and internet website design has progressed significantly over the last one-to-two decades, the much broader area of electronic commerce accessibility has a huge way yet to go.

In recognition of this state of affairs, During 1999 and this year, with funding from the Australian Commonwealth Government’s ‘AccessAbility Grants Program’, Blind Citizens Australia has been working to identify and raise awareness about some of the potential barriers and opportunities that electronic commerce developments present for people with disabilities – both in Australia and in other countries. Our primary emphasis has been on some of the particularly challenging access issues for people who are blind or vision impaired, but our work has also identified many issues with major relevance to a variety of groups of people with disabilities.

One of the primary purposes of our research project is to clearly articulate the issues, the barriers, and the potential opportunities presented by this new era of technology and social change.

To date, our research has shown up two very major barriers to accessible E-Commerce in Australia. While these findings weren't a total surprise, the magnitude of the problem was certainly underestimated. These two barriers are:

this problem of barriers to involvement in E-Commerce activities is by no means a small one – in fact, if not addressed, it may have one of the most significant negative social impacts on people with disabilities than have any other social changes in the last 30 years.


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PRIORITY AREAS FOR ACCESSIBILITY

During the progress of our research, it has become evident that the most vital requirements for positive change will involve the following activities:


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WORKSHOPS ON E-COMMERCE AT CSUN

In 1999 we ran three very successful workshops in Australia on accessible E-Commerce. Some of the issues that came out of those workshops will be covered in this presentation.

If there is sufficient interest from CSUN attendees, we could also run an informal E-Commerce workshop some time during the conference. Please contact Tim Noonan, the project researcher, by email at tnoonan@softspeak.com.au if you are interested in being involved.


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SCOPE OF PRESENTATION AND OUR PUBLICATIONS

In this presentation some of our findings to date will be examined and the efforts we are becoming involved in to assist E-Commerce accessibility will also be covered. The presentation should be of relevance to anyone with an interest in the broader accessibility issues for people with disabilities, whether online via the internet or out in the physical community. E-Commerce is a subject attracting intense social, economic and media interest, but the topic of accessibility of such developments has primarily been off to the sidelines. This presentation and our research project goes a small way to bring the holistic area of E-Commerce Accessibility into the foreground.

By the time you read this paper, the project will have completed two online-accessible discussion papers, dealing with the broad area of E-Commerce in Australia (and elsewhere) and the impact of Smart cards and electronic payment systems on people with disabilities. These two papers are expected to be merged into a single online document which can be found at http://www.bca.org.au/ecrep.htm

Some of the areas which will briefly be explored in this session, and which are addressed in much more detail in the above-mentioned papers include:


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CONCLUSION

Accessible E-Commerce isn’t just about paying bills and buying goods, its about the rights of people with disabilities to confidently, effectively and independently be a part of the economy, and society as a whole.

Even though movement has been relatively strong in the areas of PC accessibility and the accessibility of websites, the diverse area of E-Commerce still has an enormous way to go before it is inclusive and supportive of the diverse needs of people with a variety of disabilities.

It is only through concerted and coordinated research, education, awareness-raising, lobbying and enactment of disability reform legislation, that this situation is going to begin to change. Standardisation, open systems and cooperation are the key concepts we need to encourage and support in order to off-set the business imperatives of competition, being first to market and product differentiation, which all can threaten the accessibility of E-Commerce products and services to people with disabilities and our increasingly aging populations.


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