A lawsuit against Target Stores making its way through a federal court in California has laid the groundwork that gives the blind the right to sue a retailer if its website is not accessible.
In National Federation for the Blind vs. Target Stores, a judge this week denied Target's request for a dismissal of the class-action suit. Target had argued only its physical stores were subject to the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The advocacy group wanted the retailer to add alt-text, an invisible code embedded beneath graphic images that enables screen readers -- commonly used by the blind to surf the web -- that detect and vocalize a description of the image to a blind computer user. The suit also charged that Target.com contains inaccessible image maps and graphical features that make it difficult for blind users to navigate it. Finally, the suit argues that users must use a mouse to purchase items on the site, something blind users cannot do independently. Target did not return calls for comment.
The NFB first contacted Target in May of 2005, but negotiations on site changes broke down in January of this year, said John Paré of the NFB, which estimates there are 1.3 million legally blind people in the U.S.
Easier to build from scratch
"We felt we had no choice but to bring this lawsuit," Mr. Paré said. "They argued the law doesn't say they have to, but that has nothing to do with whether they should. Target had billions in profits last year. They can afford to do this."
Mazen Basrawi, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, based in Berkley, Calif., said the case sets a much-needed legal precedent and puts legal pressure on retailers to start making changes or risk the cost of lawsuits.
"This is the first court in the country that has specifically said the ADA does apply to commercial websites," said Mr. Basrawi. "We are hoping thousands of business respond to this case and are going to take web accessibility into account in their web development. Right now, there's a lot of ignorance within the web community."
Yet Mr. Basrawi said "it's much easier to build an accessible website from scratch than alter an existing website."
Jan Schmidt, owner of Collaborint, a San Francisco firm that specializes in website-development accessibility, agreed.
"Most sites can add minimum accessibility, but to take on a huge website and overhaul it could be very cost prohibitive," said Ms. Schmidt, but she added: "This case is groundbreaking because there [haven't] been a lot of incentives up to this point for companies to do it because you can't get companies to just do something unless they have to legally. This case could be eye-opening."
Although Ms. Schmidt said it would be difficult to put a dollar figure on what it would take to completely retrofit a site like Target.com, little things can be done without revamping an entire website, especially the addition of alt-text to images.
"It's a fundamental best practice that should be incorporated into the production process," said Ms. Schmidt. "It's almost ridiculous these days that it doesn't get used."
But for a retailer that's staked its marketing positioning on "Design for All," might integrating accessibility requirements compromise the design of Target.com?
"It doesn't have to," she said. "There are so many ways to accomplish look and feel without compromising accessibility. The two are not mutually exclusive."
Wal-Mart.com has undergone a process to ensure its site is reasonably accessible to the blind, and does offer alt-text, according to a spokeswoman.
Home Depot declined to discuss its site's accessibility, but in a statement said it is developing enhancements to the site that would further improve the shopping experience for customers with disabilities.