Group Sues to Make Online Retailers Answer to the Blind

Some online retailers are rethinking their Web sites in light of a recent federal court ruling that says they must by more accessible to the blind.

In a class-action lawsuit filed in Berkeley, Calif., by the National Federation of the Blind, a federal district court judge ruled that the Target online shopping site, which has no audio component, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and could be sued.

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The retail giant had sought to have the case thrown out on the grounds that its site didn't constitute a "place" and, as such, was not covered by disability-access laws.

"To limit the ADA to discrimination in the provision of services occurring on the premises of a public accommodation would contradict the plain language of that statute," U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel wrote on Sept. 9, allowing the case to proceed.

Despite the ruling, which applies only to businesses with both online and brick-and-mortar outlets, Patel rejected a request for a preliminary injunction that would have required Target to update its site immediately, saying more time was needed to weigh the retailer's claim that its site was already accessible to the average blind person.

Blind Internet users normally access Web sites using keyboards and screen-reading software, according to the National Federation of the Blind, an advocacy group based in Baltimore.
The group claims contains "thousands of access barriers," including a lack of alt-tags embedded beneath its images that would allow screen-reading software to give blind users a vocal description of the contents, according to papers filed in court.

"For blind people, the Internet is a great place to shop, because Web sites are usually far more accessible than stores," said John Pare, the group's spokesman.

Pare noted that most online retail sites are accessible to the blind, and those that aren't are generally quick to fix any obstacles. "Usually, they're unaware that there's a problem, and once we let them know they're happy to make changes," Pare said.

Kathy Wahlbin, the director of user-experience services at Mindshare Interactive Campaigns, a Washington-based e-commerce consultancy firm, said that when it comes to accessibility, most online retailers face a "hurdle of understanding."

"What they need to know is how a blind person uses a Web site, how it sounds to them, and how that's different from other users," Wahlbin said.

Wahlbin said online retailers can start by conducting an accessibility audit of their site. "It's not costly, and once you understand the basic issues it's easy to implement," she said.

Judy Colbert, a Web usability consultant, said online retailers should welcome any chance to make their site as accessible as possible to everyone.

"It takes only a few minutes to put in alt-tags and if it's done while you’re building a site, there are no additional costs," Colbert said.

The tags are also more easily picked up by search engines, Colbert added. "So as far as accessibility goes, it's an implied obligation for online retailers," she said. "But one that's good for business."

The lawsuit against Target is expected to be heard in the coming months.

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