Accessibility in beauty and fashion: What I want from brands in 2020 and beyond

“I’m positive that change can be created in terms of accessibility in the beauty and fashion industries but, in order for that change to happen, we need to start the conversation.”

Let’s set the scene; The January sales are in full swing and the vouchers and few extra pennies you received for Christmas make the idea of adding a few new pieces to your wardrobe a little more intriguing. Enticing sales emails start flooding your inbox, there’s no harm in looking is there? But then, when you finally cave and make your way to the website, all you’re met with is unreadable text, a cluttered outlay and a voice repeating ‘button, button, button.’

This is my reality as a vision impaired person. I use a screen-reader in order to use my phone and laptop and when a sudden urge to have a scroll through the new-in section on a clothing website strikes, I’m often left disappointed when the site and my assistive tech don’t get along. 

With this in mind, I want to venture beyond the natural perimeters of my usual content this week and test the waters in terms of a topic I’ve wanted to touch on for a while – what needs to be improved in terms of accessibility in beauty and fashion. 

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Accessibility in beauty and fashion

This isn’t my first foray into the world of writing about accessible beauty and fashion of course, you may have read my previous posts about the topics or the guest blog post I wrote for Leonard Cheshire last year, but it’s the first time I’m addressing the changes I want to see in terms of making the worlds of beauty and fashion accessible to vision impaired people. 

if you read my first post of the year last week then you’ll know of my pledge to highlight the importance of accessible beauty and fashion this year and so I wanted to get the ball rolling as soon as I included it as one of my goals. 

So, here I am, bringing you a post on what I want to see from brands in terms of improvements in accessibility during the course of 2020 and the years beyond that. 

Let’s dive straight in, shall we?

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ACCESSIBLE WEBSITES

After my introduction, I’m sure it’s no surprise that I’m noting this as my first point.

I’ve spoken to quite a few vision impaired people about accessibility in beauty and fashion lately and the general consensus admitted to feeling frustrated when trying to navigate the online retail space. 

It’s infuriating, as I’m sure you can imagine, to click on a website in the hope that you’ll be able to add a few new pieces to your wardrobe or beauty stash, only to be met with an inaccessible format which instantly means that you have to click off. 

My screen-reader often jumps from one section of a website to another if there are a lot of sliders and pop ups as well as if the general layout is cluttered and hard to navigate. 

I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve found myself lamenting a website for its poor accessibility, willing for just one section to be accessible with my screen-reader or for an item to have more than ‘white t-shirt’ for a description. There’s always a hint of woeful disappointment when this doesn’t happen and I think it’s important that brands and retailers learn about what changes they can implement in order to combat the frustration felt by disabled customers. 

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The first thing to note is that an accessible website doesn’t necessarily mean a plain or unattractive website and I think this is something retailers/developers aren’t aware of. 

What to improve? – A few pointers:

  • Make all buttons and toggles easy to find and label them so they can be read out by screen-readers. We never know what the link could lead to if it just says ‘button’. 
  • Use clear text and have good colour contrast – white writing on a yellow background doesn’t do anyone any favours 
  • Limit the amount of pop ups – they can send screen-readers a little crazy
  • Add Alt Text to images – The details you write will then be read out to screen-reader users, clever, eh?
  • Add detailed descriptions, ensuring that every granular detail is captured. For clothes – the colour, pattern, style, care instructions etc, etc. And with beauty products, let people know about the colours and shades. 

There are lots more that I could mention but we’ll leave those for another day. 

DETAILED DESCRIPTIONS

I’ve already touched on this but it applies to everything from the descriptions of clothes on websites to the outfits showcased on Instagram. 

If I’m able to navigate a website with my screen-reader then I often mosey on over to the ‘Description’ section of an item, hoping for further information that can help me to paint a picture of the product in my mind. Only I’m often met with a sentence stating the exact same thing as they’ve titled the product. 

And this, of course, doesn’t give any context. I want to know about the patterns, the colours, the style: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ordered a dress or a playsuit which sounds right up my street from what I’ve read or the colour I’ve seen (because I do have some remaining vision – it’s not much these days but every little helps) but when I go to try on the item after it arrives on my doorstep, I’m disappointed to find that it has a wrap style which doesn’t suit me. If that small detail was included in the item’s description, I wouldn’t have gone through the motions of ordering, trying on and then returning as I’d know it wouldn’t be for me. 

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Retail websites are largely populated with these one sentence descriptions with lack of detail and context. Writing a few extra sentences of detail could make all the difference and it could result in more of an independent way of shopping for those of us who are vision impaired. 

To finish off this point, let me just tell you about Instagram. It would make such a difference if brands utilised the option to add Alt Text to images, something the app implemented last year to follow Twitter’s lead. The option to do this on the photo based app can be found in the ‘Advanced Settings’ section when uploading a picture and after selecting ‘alt text’, you write as much detail as you like – the more, the better – about what’s included in the photo. It’s that simple. 

BRAILLE, LARGE PRINT OR QR CODES ON LABELS

When I first discovered beauty brand, L’occitane, I was over the moon when I realised they had braille on their products – a small gesture which merits recognition given the number of times I’m highlighting lack of accessibility throughout this post. It’s a promising stance and I’d love to see more brands following in their footsteps. 

I know that some products might not have the capacity to have braille or larger print on their packaging but having that option for those who do could make a huge difference. 

Brands could also consider adding QR codes to their products and labels and, when scanned, it could lead the customer to a website brimming with more information about that item – a fully accessible website of course. 

STAFF TRAINING

Staff who possess a certain degree of understanding about disability can be a real game-changer. I’ve come across staff who have been so helpful whilst others have been quite the opposite. I once had a beauty consultation at a makeup counter in Selfridges and after the woman learned about my vision impairment, she instantly switched to talking to me as if I was a child, making the experience really uncomfortable for me. 

That experience should have been something fun and different but, instead, it was tainted since I was talked to as if I didn’t understand what was happening and what makeup even was. 

It’s misconceptions like these that I actively try to challenge  but I shouldn’t have to do that when trying to enjoy a day of shopping. 

Having staff who are kind, considerate and knowledgable in their approach can make the shopping experience so much more inclusive. There are plenty of charities and organisations out there that can support companies to develop staff training, it’s just a matter of utilising the help they offer.  Honestly, having a disability-confident member of staff can be such a positive attribute to a brand or shop and it can encourage a feeling of inclusivity for disabled customers. 

Fellow blogger, Chloe, tweeted a positive experience she had in Fat Face last year when a member of staff asked if she’d like descriptions of the clothes on offer – we need more of this. 

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Personal shopping services which are offered in stores such as Debenhams and Topshop could echo that kind of inclusivity but, whilst they’re great initiatives, staff need to be aware of the things they can do in order to deliver a disability-confident service. 

Ensuring that a member of staff is aware of the basic guiding techniques for vision impaired people could be a really positive thing and offering support in terms of describing items or products can also be beneficial. But it’s also important that they know and respect the fact that not every vision impaired person will need or want help. It all comes down to personal preference. 

 There are other points that can be made in terms of helping people with other disabilities but I’ll leave those for someone who’s a little more knowledgable than me. 

STORE ACCESSIBILITY

My local Outfit is a shop I rarely pass by especially since one of my favourite brands – Topshop – is homed there. But they recently changed the entire layout of the store meaning that the outlay I was so familiar with has since been lost, leaving me quite confused. Topshop has now stretched beyond it’s previous habitat – a positive thing on one hand because, erm, more clothes, yes please – but, on the other side of the coin lies the fact that the rest of the store’s layout has switched too. 

Displays are now propped up in the middle of the floor that was once clear meaning that it’s impossible to walk to the far end of the shop without weaving in and out of these obstacles and, as someone who’s prone to crashing into things, this proves to be quite a trial. It also leaves limited space for wheelchair users and others who use mobility aids. 

A photo of Elin standing on the bottom of some stone steps, her left arm rests on a wall beside her whilst her right hand is lifted to her hair. She's looking down and smilingPIN IT

Other brands within the shop have moved too meaning that I’ve lost concept of where they’re situated. I know I’ll soon be able to pick up this new outlay (that’s if it doesn’t change again anytime soon) but when I first stepped in, unaware of the changes, it left me quite baffled. I know that it’s good to have a revamp – a refresh to keep people interested – but by doing this, stores might ultimately be turning disabled people away. 

And that’s my point here; the fact that inaccessible shops can encourage disillusionment for disabled customers.  Many might turn to searching the internet instead but when those websites aren’t accessible either, how are we meant to have an enjoyable shopping experience like everyone else?

Ensuring that the shop’s landscape is spacious and easy to navigate is one way of limiting the likelihood of bumps and crashes as well as ensuring that boxes and stock aren’t laden across the floor. Having good lighting can be beneficial too but let’s not make it too bright or harsh. And, of course, I’m sticking to my point about maintaining the usual or familiar layout of the shop, just to lessen any confusion that might arise by changing it dramatically. 

Beauty and fashion affords us the opportunity to test, trial and experiment – to be able to try on a new look and present ourselves in different ways each day but sometimes that freedom can be tainted because of inaccessibility. 

Many non-disabled people can browse a website with ease, they can purchase an item in a few simple clicks, they can familiarise themselves with a new shop layout quite quickly and have a normal conversation with a member of staff without having to address preconceived ideas. Surely we all deserve that luxury?

Some seeds are being planted in terms of improving accessibility and I do believe that some brands are starting to take note. But, whilst some buds are starting to grow and flourish, we still have a long way to go before we achieve a beautiful garden. 

A photo of Elin standing on some stone steps, she is wearing a grey knitted jumper and black faux leather mini skirt which has buttons and zip detailing on the front. She is smiling at the cameraPIN IT

When brands fall foul of inaccessibility, it often means that disabled people have to write something off if a website or shop doesn’t satisfy their access needs. It limits the freedom and variety that’s available through beauty and fashion, tainting the experience that we deserve to enjoy as much as everyone else. 

Referring back to those conversations with fellow vision impaired people; a lot shared the same sentiments in terms of changes they’d like to be implemented. The fashion landscape is changing and evolving on a daily basis and I think it’s about time that developments in accessibility for disabled customers are implemented into that evolution. 

And alongside that, we need to see a bigger scale of representation. We’re slowly witnessing a slight shift in disability representation coming from some beauty and fashion brands; YouTuber, reporter and radio presenting extraordinaire, Lucy Edwards, became an ambassador for Covergirl whilst YouTuber and motivational speaker, Molly Burke, was the face of an international Dove campaign – all positive steps of course but there’s still a long way to go and maybe even more so in the fashion industry. 

A photo of Elin standing in front of steps that lead up to a pretty stone building. She is wearing a black faux leather skirt, a grey cable knit jumper and a burgundy double breasted longline coat. Her hands are in her pockets and she is smiling at the cameraPIN IT

I hope that brands start to form conversations with disabled people in order to pinpoint what needs to change. I’m certain that change can be created but that initial engagement needs to be sparked first of all. 

Hints of improvements are starting to materialise in some cases but there’s still a long way to go. I’d love to see brands and retailers taking more of an accessibility focused stance; it might involve a few extra steps but it’s worth taking them as they can make all the difference and, at the end of the day, by improving accessibility, brands could eventually broaden their consumer market so it’s a win-win for everyone.

I’d love to hear where you stand on this topic; What improvements do you want to see within the beauty and fashion spheres? What I’ve expressed here are purely my own ideas but if you’ve noticed similarities in your own thoughts then do let me know. I hope that, by talking about inaccessibility issues, their profile will start to build and that, one day, the beauty and fashion industries grow more inclusive for everyone. 

Elin x

Comment

12 Comments

  • Molly Rose
    January 13, 2020

    Ahhh this frustrates me as all these steps and ideas that you’ve outlined to make a beauty and fashion shopping experience more accessible don’t seem as though they would be that difficult to implement, I don’t see why these massive brands with so much money can’t find a way to make the shopping experience easy for every single one of their consumers! I watch Molly Burke on youtube all the time and she’s really opened my eyes to how hard online shopping can be for those who are vision impaired. It’s so important to spread awareness of this issue, I hope some fashion and beauty brands see this post and start taking some action! Thank you for sharing this xx

    • Elin
      Molly Rose
      January 16, 2020

      Honestly, the smallest steps can make the biggest difference sometimes and I really hope more brands start to realise that as we move forward. Ah I love Molly Burke’s content! It’s so amazing that she’s using the platform that she now has to highlight some of the issues vision impaired people face. Thank you so much for reading lovely!xx

  • Khushi
    January 13, 2020

    Loved it Elin!
    I’m not much into beauty and fashion.. urm, may be because I’m still finding my love for it haha, but I do love to buy something new for me time to time. and I love lip-balms!
    that was a really insightful post and I think that more and more brands should try to make their stores and websites accessible. in fact, it should not be just for trying but they should have a commitment towards accessibility just like Apple has.
    thank you for this post x

    • Elin
      Khushi
      January 16, 2020

      I completely agree with you Kushi! Thank you so much for reading as always xx

  • Jessica Norrie
    January 13, 2020

    This looks like a great post but would you be offended if I point out that the font is quite faint and small and although I can read it it’s only by straining a lot so I didn’t finish the article. (I’m reading on a full screen desktop PC with a privacy screen that reduces glare.) I speak as a glaucoma sufferer, severely enough to be about to have my second trabeculectomy and to have had to return my driving licence but not (yet) severely enough to be registered as partially sighted. I also blog with WordPress and found a theme that I hope is more accessible for anyone with poor eyesight and I hope someone would tell me if they found it hard to read. There is quite a wide choice even on the free ones.

    Don’t know if you’ve ever posted about hotels as well as shops but we stayed in an upmarket Hotel du Vin at the weeknd that was all painted in dark blues and greys with black light switches and sockets. Really unwelcoming and gloomy and that’s before you add on visual impairment!

    I wish you good luck with your blog and with getting access to good fashion choices!

    • Elin
      Jessica Norrie
      January 16, 2020

      Thank you for letting me know about this Jessica, I appreciate you pointing this out to me and I’ll do my best to improve the quality of the font. It’s always good to hear feedback about what is and isn’t accessible for my readers. Apologies that it stopped you from reading the entire post but thank you for reading as much as you could!

  • Jenny in Neverland
    January 14, 2020

    What an incredible and important post. As someone who’s not visually impaired, I was deeply naive about all of this. Everything you’ve said about online retail websites can definitely be transferred to blogs as well – I need to do more to ensure my blog is more accessible too. I think what Chloe experienced in Fat Face was lovely, there definitely need to be more of that and hopefully with proper training and awareness there can be in the future. Thousands of pop-ups on websites are annoying at the best of times so it must be absolutely infuriating when you’re just trying to get onto the page you want!

    • Elin
      Jenny in Neverland
      January 16, 2020

      Thank you so much Jenny! I think it’s all about raising awareness and hopefully brands and retailers start to catch on as more people talk about how inaccessible the shopping experience can be. I completely agree, we definitely need more positive experiences like the one Chloe had! Thank you for reading x

  • Holly
    January 15, 2020

    Such an important post, I really hope that beauty and fashion brands start to implement these features and start to consider accessibility! I experience all of the problems you mentioned and find them really frustrating. Huge well done for raising awareness of this xxx

    • Elin
      Holly
      January 16, 2020

      I really hope so too! Some of them are such simple steps but they could make such a big difference. Thank you for reading as always lovely xxx

  • Lucy
    January 15, 2020

    This is such an amazing post Elin! All websites should have accessibility for the visually impaired. Not just fashion and beauty websites, but blogger’s can learn a hell of a lot from this post! x

    Lucy | http://www.lucymary.co.uk

    • Elin
      Lucy
      January 16, 2020

      Ah thank you so much Lucy!xx

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