Blind Deserve Same E-Commerce Access

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A class action lawsuit brought by the National Federation of the Blind against discount retailer Target Corp. may impact online retailers and e-commerce. A report in this issue by senior editor Melissa Campanelli has the details. But here's the gist of that suit: The federation is charging that Target's online store is inaccessible to the blind and violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, among other laws.

In essence, the federation wants Target to treat its e-commerce site the way it does its bricks-and-mortar stores in compliance with the ADA. It wants the online equivalent of wheelchair ramps: proper coding and design that describe images to the visually impaired. People with no sight access Web sites by using keyboards along with screen-reading software that vocalizes visual data displaying on a computer monitor.

To quote from Melissa's article: "The lawsuit claims that Target's Web site contains access barriers that prevent blind customers from browsing among and purchasing products online as well as from finding corporate information such as employment opportunities, investor news and company policies."

The federation previously filed suit against America Online, Priceline and Bank of America. But they settled out of court. Not Target. The Minneapolis-based company claims the Americans With Disabilities Act doesn't apply to its e-commerce site.

The nation's No. 2 discount retailer after Wal-Mart Stores Inc. may have its reasons for not settling. Agreed, overhauling a site as deep and vast as Target.com can cost millions of dollars and may even result in opportunity costs.

On the other hand, you have this market of people with poor or no eyesight who still have the same needs as the rest of us. And they deserve the same courtesies wherever possible.

A ruling against Target may mean every major Web site that sells online will need to have software and design that are friendly to the visually impaired. Why wait for the law to take its course? Why not be proactive and start reworking sites so that the law doesn't have to step in for common sense?

Perhaps online retailers can have two versions of a site: one text-only that is friendly to visually impaired people, and the other the regular HTML version. First-time visitors just have to establish their preference, and thereafter the embedded cookie ensures the right site is served up. Marketers, retailers and governments already do this with sites that can be viewed in multiple languages. It's not that difficult. The alternative is to rewire an existing site to ensure it's compatible to shoppers with and without sight.

This will, of course, be a bonanza for Web design agencies and Web developers. It will require some pain and sacrifice for retailers. But it makes sense to apply the same civil rights laws to the Internet that we do to bricks-and-mortar sales in this age of multichannel retail.

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