Why can’t Amazon adopt a culture of accessibility?

To date, I’ve written to Amazon’s accessibility department a total of ten times this month. And, what’s really interesting, is that the world is still in shambles.

As a visually impaired person who loves reading, I shop for books often. A lot of my blind friends have Alexa because it can read Kindle books. Which, ironically, is something the Google Assistant can’t do yet, nor read any eBook bought from Google, for that matter, but I digress.

The gist of my email went something like this.

Dear Amazon,

I’m Robert Kingett, a blind author and customer who’s trying to buy a copy of my book so I can give it to a friend for the holidays. Your accessibility, though, especially on the desktop website for screen reader users, is very inconsistent. For two weeks, the add to cart button will be labeled but then the third week, the add to cart button, nor the buy with one click button isn’t labeled.

The same thing happens in your wish list pages too, as well as book detail pages. As a person who publishes through your platform, I’d like you to make accessibility more of a top priority. It feels very inconsistent and it’s extremely frustrating to experience, especially when the issue gets resolved then actively reverts back to your inaccessible state a few days after the problem is fixed.

The response I received went something like this.

Hi Robert!

Thank you for writing back. I understand that you’re having a problem with the screen and the display of a book details page. Why don’t we hop on chat so we can troubleshoot this display problem you’re having? It may be a brightness setting.

The above samples weren’t word for word, but I’ve captured the tone quite well, I think.

What began my email writing in the first place was a sheer lack of a way to buy a kindle book on the more screen reader friendly version of Amazon. I said this wasn’t fair. I hate shopping on the full site. And, I get it. The goal isn’t to make two different pages. The goal is to make the original page as accessible as possible, so screen reader users won’t be delegated to a ghetto website.

The reason why I keep going back to the screen reader friendly version, though, is because it gets rid of all the junk. Quite literally. There are no banners, no anything else to accidentally add to your cart. Even so, though, it’s accessible, but it’s not inclusive. None of this web design looks inclusive to me. It looks accessible. I believe there’s a difference.

The more I shop on Amazon, the more I feel like they are not an inclusive company. They are just an accessible company. The whole Amazon website, in terms of accessible design, feels as if accessibility is just a continuously burdensome after thought. Which is weird, because their Alexa product has changed the lives of so many visually impaired people. Mine, included, even though I have a speech disability. The routines feature allows me to do a lot without speaking.

Product pages, for example, are cluttered with buttons that are for free trials and buying with one click and links to similar products. But, the accessibility of that very content changes every week. One week, a link will be labeled. The next week, it won’t be labeled. Same with buttons, edit forms, and more.

Amazon is no stranger to accessibility, though. Their audio description catalog is growing. Just this year, they were sued because their employment application process wasn’t accessible. They partnered with the NFB years ago to make an accessible website. Back when the Kindle was first released, there was an advocacy push to allow text to speech on the devices. When that didn’t work, visually impaired people marched in the streets. They offer built in braille on all of their Fire Tablets, something Google still can’t figure out with their phones. Alexa has made owning a smart house easier for the visually impaired.

With all of this accessibility involvement, it still baffles me that one man, Peter Korn, is basically doing this accessibility thing alone. In a recent talk, he says that many blind people work at Amazon, especially in the Alexa department, but every time I get an email like the one above after writing to their accessibility team, it makes me really weary of their commitment.

I don’t want accessibility specialists at companies anymore. I want companies to adopt a culture of accessibility. Microsoft and Apple do this very well. Microsoft and Apple have both adopted a culture of accessibility. They don’t just have an accessibility department. Microsoft tries to bake inclusive design from the ground up. Which is amazing. Not only does it get developers and coders actively thinking about accessibility, even if they hate it, but it also ensures that people of any skill level can use their products and services.

The same thing goes for Apple. Their culture of accessibility even reaches the press room, which is extremely nice. Could both companies do more? Absolutely. But, in my book, their inclusive design is light-years ahead of Amazon’s accessibility fixes.

I don’t understand why Amazon hasn’t grasped the value of an accessible company, rather than an accessibility department. It would take time to bake accessible thinking into departments that never or rarely need accessibility, but it would be worth it in the end.

I mean, for one thing, if they did that, maybe the lawsuits would go down a bit. Just a thought.

Since Amazon isn’t quite meeting my accessibility needs, I’ve taken to shopping for audio books at Libro.fm. they are DRM free audio books that allow you to support your local bookstore with every purchase, if you wish to support an indie bookstore. If I want to buy an audio CD, I shop at indiebound. Or, well, anywhere else that’s more inclusive.