About a year into my new PhD program at the Università della Svizzera italiana, Switzerland, I began losing my eyesight. I have been myopic since adolescence, so not seeing well has always been the norm for me. But this was different. The decline was marked, and what was worse, my vision became increasingly fuzzy, in a way stronger correction would not solve. The hours spent in front of a screen lecturing and doing research increased exponentially because of the pandemic. As my eyes started to fail me, I decided to undergo surgery. But while waiting for one eye and then the other to be operated on, I had to adapt.
Coincidentally, my doctoral research focuses on another sense – not vision, but touch. More specifically, I study touch in the context of digital fashion, and the role haptics – active touch simulation technologies – might one day play in the online fashion experience. If you have ever bought a fashion garment from an e-commerce website and waited for it to be delivered so you could finally touch it, try it on, and feel it on your body, you might also have wondered, like I do, about the quality of the overall sensory experience of digital retail, and what might be done about it. (There is hope).
But let us return to vision. As I was struggling to keep staring at a screen, I discovered a host of tools that I, as a sighted person – albeit with artificial correction – had not known existed. I realized my iMac’s operating system included functionalities such as voice recognition and text reading functions, keyboard enhancements, and so forth. I also became more aware of developments in haptic technologies serving the visually impaired, such as the work of Sile O’Modhrain. And as I was doing my online research on fashion e-commerce websites, I started noticing assistive navigation add-ons that I had previously glossed over – additional services provided by third-party applications such as EqualWeb or Facil’iti.
By activating the features provided in the add-on’s contextual menu, I could enlarge text and image, have it read to me, or adapt the screen for different visual impairment conditions. As I continued my research, I purposefully began looking for these added services within fashion websites, but gradually I realized they were more the exception than the rule (only two out of thirteen websites featured them). It seemed fashion brands – or at least the ones I was analyzing – were not that interested in investing in online inclusivity. This struck me as odd, given the industry is in the spotlight with regards to sustainability issues, both environmental and social.
Mindful that doctoral research requires focus – tempting as it is to meander onto the fascinating ramifications of one’s topic – I would not have given the issue much further thought. But part of my inquiry included – in addition to scrutinizing garment pages – actually placing an order and having the garment delivered to my house. After a few orders had been placed, packages delivered and unboxed, and items unfolded, inspected, tried on and considered, I started realizing something was amiss.
“KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE”!
All the boxes and bags I received were decorated with bold logos, and many featured inspirational phrases extolling the virtues of recycling. Inside the boxes, I found the clothes folded inside cellophane bags, sealed or zipped, or wrapped in paper. Some packages included return slips and labels. All the garments featured the customary cardboard labels, attached to the items with pins or strings; and inside the clothes I found the usual assortment of cloth labels sewn into the side seams or on the back of the collar. A label attached to a sweater ominously read “KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE” implying I could expose myself to great danger were I to wear it by the fireplace. And that’s when it struck me. I could read the label – but what about those who could not?
In the book The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, published in conjunction with the 2018 exhibit by the same name at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, contributing author Karen Kraskow describes the experience of two visually impaired professional women as they go about shopping for clothes, and the strategies they use to access their purchases, such as eliminating, modifying or otherwise adjusting clothing tags to distinguish different garment colors. One of them asks: “Could we not have a system of differently textured or shaped tags to represent the color range? How about tags to identify clothes that fit me when I’m above my normal weight, and different ones to identify those that fit me when my weight is in the normal range?” Well… What about tags that would warn her to “KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE”?
The Cooper Hewitt book is fascinating in its treatment of design solutions going beyond the affordances of vision. As it were, the minimum standards for the rights of people with disabilities are set by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) an international, legally binding instrument. In the USA, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design state that all electronic and information technology must be accessible to people with disabilities. In Europe, the European Accessibility act seeks to guarantee accessibility to products and services, including e-commerce platforms, across member states. Notwithstanding this, in my limited but significant personal experience, many US- and EU-based fashion brands operating online did not seem to respect standards guaranteeing right to website access for the visually impaired, nor, for that matter, access to important (life saving?) information for the product they delivered.
Perhaps fashion brands should follow the example of Selina Peyer, a young Swiss designer. Although her website does not yet have an add-on inclusivity features (let’s give her a chance – she just started out!), her knitwear brand, Feel A Fil, produces “haptic” knits delivered with regular and Braille-annotated garment description and care labels. It should not be that difficult, nor that onerous, to ensure inclusivity in the fashion e-commerce customer experience is not lost in delivery.