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How Coles Is Breaking Down Barriers for People with Disability During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Mel O’Brien, Digital Accessibility Manager

When you hear the word ‘accessibility,’ your mind might go to ramps, handrails, parking spots and tactile paving. But today it’s important to consider two worlds: the physical and the digital. Just as physical spaces must be easy to navigate for people with disabilities (PwD), so too should digital spaces be made accessible for all.

COVID underscored the need for accessible digital shopping experiences. Many PwD are more susceptible to COVID, making in-store shopping riskier. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in July 2021 the ABS reported that 29% of PwD had experienced high levels of psychological distress.

Those who have made the choice to shop in-store during the pandemic have faced unique challenges. Mask-wearing, for example, has meant that deaf people can no longer lip read. At the same time, the social stigma of going into a store unmasked is significant, even if a person has a genuine reason to do so.

For some, the only safe and stress-free way PwD can get their groceries is by ordering online. Below, I’m sharing how Coles is creating a safe haven for this vulnerable group by making the digital experience for our customers as inclusive and accessible as possible.

Designed for dignity: Our approach at Coles

We embed accessibility into every one of our digital products, from Coles Online to our Careers portal and beyond, and into our services and experiences – it’s a fundamental part of our design process.

A key focus for us is inclusive design – designing for edge cases, thereby solving problems for many.

In bowling, when you roll the ball down the middle of the lane you hit the bulk of the pins but often end up with a split; the two pins furthest from the middle are left standing. When it comes to creating accessible experiences, organisations usually aim for the middle (the mainstream), but the pins left standing – in this case, it could be Aussies with autism or vision impairments – represent the people that need the most support. You’ll knock down more pins if you enter at an angle but to do that, you must change your aim and aim for the pins that are the hardest to hit, the edge cases.

This is at the heart of inclusive design. The interesting part is that the supports for PwD, (those on the “outside of the lane”) are often supports that all Australians need (e.g. easy to read font). Think about how a kerb ramp connecting the road to the footpath helps not only a wheelchair user, but also a person pushing a pram or pulling a wheeled suitcase. The edge case is the pram user, but the kerb ramp actually makes crossing easier for everyone.

We collaborate with PwD to improve overall user experience and it helps that we have PwD in our team – they are amazing team members who offer instant, first-hand insight into our work, which is invaluable.

We aim to give shoppers the most independent shopping experience possible.

Reward and recognition

While our ultimate goal is greater independence for PwD and a more seamless shopping experience, it’s nice when our work is recognised beyond our own ecosystem. So it was a pleasure to recently be recognised by accessibility authority The Centre for Accessibility Australia (CFA).

The Access Awards acknowledge Australia’s most accessible websites and apps. They celebrate organisations who embrace A11y proactively. I was incredibly proud that Coles was a finalist in two categories – Corporate App of the Year and Corporate Website of the Year. The whole team lit up when it was announced we were the winner! Coles’ online shopping website won the most Accessible Corporate Website for 2021, in a year when accessibility has meant more than ever before. This means back-to-back wins for Coles online as we also won the 2020 award!

It’s our hope that other Australian companies will follow our lead, see the value in digital inclusion and get onboard the A11y train!

On a personal level, it means a lot to be able to work in an organisation that not only provides an essential service to PwD, but also provides them with dignity, confidence and independence. We have become champions of accessibility, and we’ve earned the support of Coles leaders along the way, allowing us to explore more ideas and deliver more innovation.

Our purpose at Coles is to help Australians lead happier and healthier lives. I’m proud to say that our A11y team are playing a key role in making this a reality.

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