Blind customer sues Coles claiming website discrimination – takes up to eight hours to do the shopping

A blind woman has filed an unlawful discrimination claim against supermarket giant Coles after claiming she faced a range of difficulties ordering groceries from the retailer’s website, including the process taking up to eight hours to complete.

If the court action is successful, it could have a broader impact on the legal obligation of companies to make their websites accessible for the blind or visually impaired.

Gisele Mesnage, who has been legally blind since birth, has lodged the case in the Federal Court of Australia. Her lawyer, Michelle Cohen from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, told SmartCompany the action was taken after a complaint to the Australia Human Rights Commission failed.

“Gisele is talking legal action as the last resort,” says Cohen.

Cohen says Mesnage has being using Coles online shopping since 2008 and has been in communication with the supermarket about its accessibility since then.

Coles made its online shopping process accessible for the blind in 2010, but a 2013 upgrade removed some of those features from the website. Cohen says the changes subsequently made it extremely difficult for Mesnage to create an order and lodge the order independently.

“When the site was accessible, she [Mesnage] could place and lodge an order in three hours using a screen reader. Since the change in 2013, she has either been unable to complete an order or found it extremely difficult, taking up to eight hours [on some occasions].”

Cohen says the claim is essentially about a company’s obligation to make online shopping, an essential service for the blind, available to those with a disability.

“The claim really is about equality,” she says. “It’s about independence and freedom for people with a disability.”

Mesnage wants Coles to make accessibility a high priority, according to Cohen, and allow her to place an order within a three hour period.

“We want them to comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, as set down by the Australian Human Rights Commission,” says Cohen.

She says all companies with a commercial website offering a service should pay attention to accessibility. But while this should be kept in the forefront of a small business owner’s mind, Cohen says the Disability Act requires services to be provided on an equal basis to the extent it is reasonable, taking into account the size and resources of the company.

“We do expect a higher standard from Coles, given they are one of the two leading supermarket chains.”

A Coles spokesperson said the supermarket is committed to providing an outstanding service to all of its customers.

“Coles has made a significant investment to provide a great online shopping experience for all of our customers, including many who are vision impaired or have other disabilities,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“Coles recognises and endorses the importance of online accessibility, and we are continually working to improve our online grocery shop, including improvements to the accessibility of the website. We work with experts in this field to make our site usable by people with disabilities.

The supermarket said it will review the documents lodged with the court and respond in due course.

The first hearing date is set for December.

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