Target Suit Raises Bar for Web Businesses

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A federal ruling Sept. 6 requires online businesses to meet the terms of the Americans With Disabilities Act just as offline business have been required to do since the law's enactment in 1990.

The ruling lets a lawsuit by the National Federation of the Blind against Target Corp., Minneapolis, to proceed. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, charged that Target's Web site is inaccessible to the blind, and therefore violates the ADA, the California Unruh Civil Rights Act and the California Disabled Persons Act.

"What this means is that any place of business that provides services, such as the opportunity to buy products on a Web site, is now a place of accommodation and therefore falls under the ADA," said Kathy Wahlbin, director of user experience for Washington-based Mindshare Interactive Campaigns LLC  and an expert on accessibility.

"This ruling proves that just as a brick-and mortar store needs things like wheelchair ramps to make sure its store is accessible to the disabled under the law, Web sites also have to be accessible," she said.

NFB v. Target was filed as a class action on behalf of all blind Americans who are being denied access to www.target.com. The named plaintiffs are the NFB, the NFB of California and a blind college student, Bruce "BJ" Sexton.

The court denied Target's motion to dismiss and held that the federal and state civil rights laws apply to Web sites like www.target.com. The court rejected Target's argument that only its physical store locations were covered by the civil rights laws, ruling instead that all services provided by Target, including its Web site, must be accessible to people with disabilities.

However, the court denied NFB's request for a preliminary injunction against Target.

The plaintiffs originally filed the complaint Feb. 7 in Alameda superior court in California. The case was removed to federal court and assigned to Judge Marilyn Hall Patel. Target responded by filing a motion to dismiss the case, which argued in part that no civil rights laws apply to the Internet.

"There have been several additional cases such as America Online, Bank of America and Priceline that covered the same issues in the Target case," Ms. Wahlbin said. "But they all settled out of court. Target, however, wanted a ruling that says the ADA doesn't apply to its Web site, but the judge disagreed."

Target did not return calls seeking comment but said in a statement it would continue fighting the lawsuit.

What Makes a Site Accessible

Blind people access Web sites by using keyboards in conjunction with screen-reading software, which vocalizes visual information on a computer screen.

According to the lawsuit, Target's Web site contains access barriers that prevent blind customers from browsing among and purchasing products online as well as from finding important corporate information such as employment opportunities, investor news and company policies.

The plaintiffs charge that target.com fails to meet the minimum standard of Web accessibility. It lacks compliant alt-text, an invisible code embedded beneath graphic images that allows screen readers to detect and vocalize a description of the image to a blind computer user. It also contains inaccessible image maps and other graphical features, preventing blind users from navigating and making use of all functions of the site.

And because the Web site requires use of a mouse to complete a transaction, blind Target customers cannot make purchases on target.com independently.

Ms. Wahlbin said this lawsuit would open the issue to many more suits as well as encourage companies to ensure their Web sites are accessible to people with disabilities.

"The good news is that being compliant is not difficult, nor is it expensive," she said. "And it provides the additional benefit of making accessible Web sites easier for search engines to find and prioritize."

Bob Gilbreath, chief marketing strategist at Bridge Worldwide, a relationship marketing agency in Cincinnati that is an independent unit of WPP, said many companies have accessible Web sites and many agencies have ensured for years that their clients' sites are accessible.

"It's definitely been a part of the conversation for the past three or four years," he said. "Most of the Web sites for major companies have some Web accessibility."

Guidelines for Accessibility

Greg Dowling, senior analyst with New York-based JupiterResearch, focuses on best practices for Web site operations. To ensure your site is accessible, he said, simply follow Section 508 guidelines. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires access to electronic and information technology provided by the federal government. Sixteen provisions address Web sites, and they can be found at www.508.gov.

A critical guideline involves ensuring all images include compliant alt-text, Mr. Dowling said.

"In addition, Web site operators should use style sheets to create a more clean page with limited Flash or JavaScript that make it easier for screen-reader programs to read," he said.

Section 508 also suggests that sites have contrasting colors so information can be viewed by people with color-viewing disabilities; ensure clear navigation and use text links that describe where a user is going when he clicks.

The guidelines also provide alternatives to auditory content for the hearing impaired as well as ensuring your Web site can be accessed without the use of a mouse, which is important for people with arthritis.

Mr. Dowling also recommended having a separate, text-based site free of styles, especially for companies with many people who are blind.

But Mr. Gilbreath said that the 508 guidelines are more of a starting point and that companies can do many creative things with sites yet keep them accessible.

"That guideline is not end all, be all," he said. "As sites become more complex, they can do more sophisticated things with Web accessibility."

Bridge uses its own set of guidelines based on Section 508 and on guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium and guidelines from IBM Corp., Mr. Gilbreath said.

Web site operators also should conduct accessibility audits of their online practices to see whether they might be in jeopardy as a result of the federal ruling, Ms. Wahlbin said. 

"Guidelines can be difficult to understand," she said. "But there are companies out there [such as Mindshare] that can evaluate a company's Web site and tell them where they don't comply and offer them suggestions, or take it a step further and make the changes for them."

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