Slow motion wake-up call for Web accessibility

Lawsuit against Target may require significant reworking of corporate Web sites

The latest step in the lawsuit by the National Federation of the Blind against Target played out in a Baltimore court early this year, with Target’s appeal being denied. So the case will proceed, and if the NFB prevails a whole lot of corporate Web sites will need to be updated.

This lawsuit got its start in early 2006 when a blind University of California Berkeley student decided to sue Target because the Web site was hard, or at times, impossible for blind people to use. The lawsuit claimed that Target was violating the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).  (The amended complaint can be found here.)

In September a California judge agreed that the case might have merit in that Target's Web site might qualify as "a place of accommodation" that is covered by the ADA. The lawsuit was ruled as qualifying to be a class action with a nationwide class in October 2007 and now the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has dismissed Target's appeal.

The case should be back in court soon. (But, remember this is "soon" using a judicial calendar that runs rather much slower than Internet time.)

Initially Target argued that the ADA only applied to physical space and thus a Web site was not subject to the act. The judge disagreed that it was so clear-cut, did not make any final rulings and instead said that any such rules would be premature. (See the ruling here.)

What will it mean to you if you run a Web site where you sell stuff to the public? How about if you are just giving away information? It is not all that clear yet. The first thing you will need is an accepted standard and a court ruling or specific guidelines saying what conformance to the standard actually means.

The two major standards for Web accessibility in the United States are the W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and the U.S. Government Section 508 standards.

The Section 508 standards apply to Web sites that are run or funded by the U.S. government, and could be considered a safe harbor (if your site meets these guidelines you should be OK).

It is harder to figure out what would be required if you decided to follow the W3C guidelines. They are far more detailed and cover a much broader range of situations than do the Section 508 standards. The W3C Priority 1 guidelines are about the same as the Section 508 standards and the W3C standard says that these guidelines must be met if the Web site is to be considered compliant. The problem comes from the W3C Priority 2 and 3 guidelines. I have not heard of any court decisions or a set of regulations that say which of these guidelines a site needs to meet to avoid being called non-compliant with the ADA.

The Target case is proceeding slowly, but still should be seen as a wake-up call for Web site operators. The handwriting is on the wall and it seems there is no small chance that the courts will rule for the NFB and even if they do not, Congress might not be far behind in fixing any lack. Of course, there is no requirement to wait until the courts rule; it is just fine to get a start now — in fact, it just might be the right thing to do.

Disclaimer: The above is my reading of the legal tea leaves, not Harvard's.


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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