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UOC student develops first online store to offer products labelled in Braille

  Photo: Unsplash/Rawpixel

Photo: Unsplash/Rawpixel

Roser Reyner
The Alblin project will offer an accessibility consultancy service for online businesses

How can someone who is blind or visually impaired identify or tell the difference between products in the supermarket? This is the question Felipe de Abajo, student on the University Master's Degree in Education and ICT (E-learning) at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), asked himself one year ago. This was the spark of inspiration for the project that would become Alblin, the first online store in the world to offer products featuring Braille on the label, which blind or visually impaired people can read by touch. The project was one of eight to be presented in June as part of the seventh Spin UOC entrepreneurship conference. The store is expected to be launched in September and, further down the road, Alblin will offer an accessibility consultancy service for other online businesses.

In an attempt to find an answer to his initial question, Felipe discovered that some manufacturers label their products using the Braille writing system, which is compulsory for medication packaging, for instance. He also found that even fewer use a QR code in relief and that the majority do not include anything at all.

"I estimate that in Spain there must be around 1,500 products labelled in Braille, although I do not know the exact numbers because there is no national catalogue or anything", he explained. "If you put yourself in the shoes of a blind person, going to the supermarket and looking for these products is quite a difficult endeavour. What's more, the customer service staff are often not sure how to respond", added the UOC student, who has a bachelor's degree in Social Education and advanced-level specialist training in Web Application Development. Alblin's aim is to facilitate access to these products labelled in Braille.


Test phase with the ONCE

In order to create the online store, Felipe and his team of family and friends, who are lending a hand on the entrepreneurial project, prioritized usability and accessibility. During the test phase, the UOC student was able to collaborate with the ONCE (Spain's national organization for the blind) and the Visual Impairment Association of Catalonia: B1+B2+B3, who offer their services to people who are visually impaired in Catalonia.

Nowadays, blind or visually impaired people can access the store using their usual support devices: the refreshable Braille display, which translates the content of another device, such as a computer, into Braille, or the screen reader, which reads text aloud. Alblin is also designed to facilitate navigation by using the tab key on a keyboard, a resource frequently used by people with visual impairments.

Once the online store has received permission to sell the products from companies that feature Braille on their product labels, and once the payment methods have been activated, the store will work as follows: first of all, users will need to select a category; they will then search for the product they want to buy; and finally, they can check the information to know in which supermarket to find it, or they can buy it directly from the website. In this case, the payment will be made through PayPal or by credit card, with a maximum delivery time of 72 hours to the user's home or a pick-up point. To organize all this, Felipe is working with the national postal service in Spain, Correos.


First the social project, then profitability

So, where will the products available online be stored? For now, nowhere. The UOC student explained that, during this first phase, the Alblin team will acquire the product and then send it on to the user in the post. "The product will be slightly more expensive than in the supermarket, but that is just so that we can cover our costs. The online store is first and foremost an inclusive non-profit initiative", he highlighted.

In fact, the project will also include a voluntary service that, among other things, will put volunteers in contact with visually impaired people so that they can help them visit the supermarket and find the product they have found online.

Profitability will come later. "Accessibility is a compulsory aspect of all government websites; however, it is not the same case for online businesses. That being said, it is likely that the European Accessibility Act is going to make many of these kinds of improvement obligatory. Having gained experience from working on Alblin, we are expecting to make some profit from accessibility consultancy services that are aimed at online businesses, or from the sale and rent of accessible software", Felipe added.


Open to new channels of funding

In addition, the Alblin team is open to collaborations as a way of obtaining funding, which will be used for two things: either to help offer an integral logistics service that allows them to have a warehouse and manage transportation; or to develop their marketing strategy. They currently have accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, as well as a line of promotional products designed to feature their logo.

Felipe is very pleased with the progress they have made over this past year, despite how intense the work has been: "This project has been driven by a passion for technology, innovation and inclusion. It has taken up all our spare time and we encourage anyone who shares our motivation to get in contact with us", he concluded.