A no-win lawsuit over Web accessibility

* Target to fight the National Federation of the Blind over site accessibility

Some lawsuits aren’t worth fighting. Sometimes it makes more sense to listen to what the plaintiff is saying and agree with him. Not only does this save time and money, but occasionally the defendant can avoid looking like a fool.

Target Corporation has such a lawsuit on its hands right now, and instead of settling gracefully, the company is going to battle. The funny thing is, even if Target wins the lawsuit, it loses in the long run.

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has filed suit against Target, charging that the retailer’s Web site is inaccessible to persons who are blind, and thus in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). What’s more, since the lawsuit was filed in California, it further alleges that Target violated the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, and the California Disabled Persons Act. The case is identified as Northern District of California Case No. C 06-01802 MHP.

NFB has listed its member Bruce Sexton as another plaintiff in the case. According to the suit, Sexton “is blind and has been denied the full use and enjoyment of facilities, goods and services of Target.com.” The plaintiffs are seeking “full and equal access to the goods and services provided by Target through Target.com.”

OK, so Target sells goods and services via its Web site. What’s the problem? The problem is that the Web site has been developed in such a way that it doesn’t fully work with assistive technology that is commonly used by persons who are blind (i.e., a screen reader). That means that when Sexton browses the Target.com Web site, ostensibly to purchase something, he can’t access the same information that a sighted person can access. In essence, it’s an unequal offering of services to someone with a disability.

The lawsuit claims: “Target.com contains access barriers that prevent free and full use by blind persons using keyboards and screen reading software. These barriers are pervasive and include, but are not limited to: lack of alt-text on graphics, inaccessible image maps, the lack of adequate prompting and labeling; the denial of keyboard access; and the requirement that transactions be performed solely with a mouse.”

This is the crux of the lawsuit. The ADA says that businesses have to provide equal accommodation for all people. However, the ADA does not specifically say this accommodation pertains to Web sites, since the law was written before commercial Web sites were available.

Target is using this as the basis to fight the suit. In other words, what Target appears to be saying is “we don’t disagree that our Web site doesn’t support common accessibility features, but we disagree that we should have to make our Web site accessible because the law was written too long ago to cover this technology.”

How short-sighted is that? Retail technology editor Evan Schuman points out in this blog posting how backward Target’s thinking is. Schuman estimates it would cost between $800,000 and $2 million to revamp Target’s Web site to make it fully accessible. Target probably spends more than that on routine maintenance of its Web site in a year. What’s more, the legal fees to fight this lawsuit could easily mount higher than $2 million, and certainly the bad publicity has cost the company in goodwill and lost sales.

What’s truly absurd is that Target would ultimately benefit - technologically speaking - if it would just settle the lawsuit and rework its Web site. The same techniques that make a Web site “accessible” also make it easier and more cost effective to maintain over time. And, a well-coded Web site built to worldwide accessibility standards works on numerous types of devices and browsers, meaning the site can be used by more people - not just those who use a screen reader.

This lawsuit has been well publicized in the technology press, including sister publication Computerworld. I hope it serves as a wake up call to all large companies that offer goods and services to the public via a Web site. If Target loses the lawsuit, it creates a precedent that exposes countless other companies - possibly yours - to a similar suit. If Target “wins” the lawsuit, it simply means that the company has proven that the ADA is antiquated and needs to be updated. Target still ignores the needs of a substantial customer base in the U.S. and abroad, and risks the loss of sales. Who could call this a win?

October is National Disability Awareness Month. Is your business in tune with the needs of people with disabilities or an age-related impairment? Don’t wait for a lawsuit to reach this community, estimated to be 10% of the world’s population.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.