Blind Americans demand Web access; Target fights back

Court battle expected to heat up in coming months

Retailer Target's refusal to make its Web site more accessible to the blind has fueled a high-profile court battle that is causing many companies to quietly upgrade their Web sites in the hopes of avoiding negative publicity and legal liability.

The case will unfold over the next several months, but a federal judge has already dismissed Target’s claim that Americans with Disabilities Act prohibitions against discrimination do not apply to commercial Web sites.

This ruling, and other advocacy efforts on behalf of the blind, has caused a number of “major e-tailers” to upgrade their sites to make them compatible with software the blind use to access the Internet, says Paul Rosenfeld, senior vice president of federal accessibility solutions at the SSB BART Group in San Francisco, a consulting firm founded by technologists with disabilities.

These online retailers contacted SSB BART to assist in that upgrade, but Rosenfeld says he can’t identify the companies because they wish to remain anonymous.

“This Target case, it’s been a wake-up call for e-tailers,” Rosenfeld says.

Before the case, advocacy groups for the blind would often ask companies to upgrade their Web sites and not receive immediate results, he says. Retailers typically don’t make those upgrades right away “unless there’s litigious action or some need for risk management,” he says.

There are 1.3 million legally blind Americans, and nearly 9 million more who are visually impaired, according to the American Foundation for the Blind.

A Web site as a sighted user sees it.

Blind people access the Internet with keyboards used in conjunction with screen-reading software, such as JAWS for Windows, which read aloud text, and descriptions of pictures and other images. The descriptions are known as alt-text (alternative text), invisible code embedded beneath graphical images.

A Web site without accessibility features as a blind person experiences it.

These text equivalents must be written by Web site designers when they put images online, or blind people will not be given a vocalized description of the picture.

A Web site with accessibility features as a blind person reads it.

Targeting Target

A class action lawsuit filed by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) accused Target.com of lacking alt-text for many graphics, preventing blind customers from browsing products and looking for Target locations.

Moreover, Target.com requires that all transactions be performed with a mouse, the NFB said, a barrier that prevents blind people from purchasing products online. While a blind person can use a keyboard, just as a sighted person can type without looking at the keys, a blind person cannot use a mouse because it requires the ability to see the mouse cursor on the screen. Accessible Web design allows the blind to navigate sites using just Tab, Shift-Tab, and Enter.

The Target lawsuit is unique because most companies, when told by blind people that their Web sites are inaccessible, are willing to make the necessary upgrades, says John Pare, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind. They may not make the change instantly, but companies at least begin the process of fixing the problems. Legal action is a last resort for the NFB, he says.

“We really work to resolve it locally,” he says. “The only company, certainly in the last several years, that has said just plain ‘no’ is Target.”

Target’s refusal surprised the NFB, because the retailer is losing out on money blind people are willing to spend, and the lawsuit may damage the company’s public image. “We’re just completely shocked,” Pare says.

When contacted by Network World, Target reiterated a statement the company originally issued in October, which reads as follows: “Target.com is committed to providing an online experience that is accessible to all of our guests. Despite the lawsuit brought forward by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), we have always and will continue to implement new technologies to our Web site. We are in the process of making online enhancements that will benefit all of our guests, including those with disabilities. These enhancements will occur regardless of the outcome of this lawsuit.”

In court, Target argued that its Web site is not a “place of public accommodation” the way a brick-and-mortar store is, and that the site is therefore not governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A U.S. District Court judge in California rejected the argument, saying that restricting the ADA’s discrimination provisions to physical locations “would contradict the plain language of the statute.”

More than three years ago, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer argued that the ADA requires commercial Web sites to be accessible, while investigating Priceline.com and Ramada.com. The companies agreed to pay fines totaling $77,500 and implement a variety of upgrades to help the blind navigate their Web sites.

Despite that agreement, the Target court ruling was the first to directly state that the ADA applies to private Web sites, advocates for the blind say. The court has not yet addressed the practical question of how to define accessibility, Pare says. A court date is scheduled for April to determine whether the suit against Target can go forward as a class action.

“This is not going to happen quickly,” Pare says.

Tracy Andrews, a 43-year-old resident of Cheshire, Conn., who has been legally blind since she was a child, says she often encounters difficulty when searching the Web but is surprised Target has opted to fight the lawsuit.

“I think in the long run, if Web sites can make themselves more accessible it’s going to be to their advantage,” Andrews says. “To fight it is only being a stick in the mud. The tide is moving, you might as well go along with it.”

State and federal government Web sites are already required to be accessible to the blind due to the ADA and other laws, says Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at W3C in Cambridge, the World Wide Web Consortium, an international standards organization.

Although the legal requirements for private companies are not as clear, many commercial Web sites have already made the switch to accessibility. Amazon.com and Wal-Mart have Web sites that are in good shape, Pare says.

Organizations can apply to the NFB for a certification demonstrating that their site complies with accessibility guidelines. Ten have obtained the certification, including Merck, Legal Sea Foods, HP, General Electric, Wells Fargo and the Social Security Administration.

Merck became certified in April 2005, before the Target lawsuit. An external contract to upgrade the site cost about $35,000, and Merck devoted at least two employees to the project, says Larry Tattoli, associate director of Merck.com. The process “wasn’t that difficult,” he says.

A bigger challenge has been maintaining accessibility as the Web site grows and changes, Tattoli says. Whenever a new image is added, a Web site developer has to add alt-text that can be read to a blind person.

On a positive note, Merck officials found that making the site accessible to the blind did not alter the visual presentation, as they had feared.

“It was this feeling that the text would have to be huge, or you couldn’t have any images on it, it would be text-only pages. It’s not true,” Tattoli says. “The pages I could show you before it was accessible and after it was accessible are exactly the same.”

The cost of making a Web site accessible usually equals 5% to 10% of the cost of Web maintenance, says Preety Kumar, CEO of Deque Systems, a Reston, Va., company that helps Web site designers automate the task of complying with accessibility standards.

“A very small percentage” of companies have made their sites accessible, she says.

“They’re overwhelmed, that’s what I’m sensing,” Kumar says. “There are companies that are responding to the Target lawsuit, and they’re paying attention because they realize the risks of noncompliance are not insignificant.”

Beyond the blind

Blind people aren’t the only ones with disabilities using the Internet. Deaf people, for example, can access visual portions of the Web without assistance but are often out of luck when it comes to audio files or sound on video files, even though there are tools Web developers can use to add captions.

People with severe motor disabilities can use voice recognition software to surf the Web, as paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve did before his death. If they still have some ability to use their hands, they can also be helped by the same accessibility guidelines designed for the blind. Someone who can type but cannot manipulate a mouse can surf Web sites that are fully accessible with a keyboard.

“If you do it right and you make your Web site accessible to the blind, you do cover other [disabled] populations largely,” Kumar says.

Among the disabled, Kumar says she thinks blind people are the most challenged because they need a clean text-to-speech translation in addition to a mouse alternative.

People who are deaf and blind would be worse off, obviously, but they can use a Braille display, a strip located in front of the computer keyboard. A mechanism inside the strip controls small pins that go up and down to form Braille letters.

Andrews, the legally blind Connecticut resident, says she’s using a 7-year-old version of ZoomText, a program that reads text out loud and magnifies the screen. Sometimes text is read to her in a nonsensical order, particularly when it is arranged in columns instead of paragraph form. Andrews says her outdated version of ZoomText may be causing problems but that poor text-to-speech translation is also often due to the Web sites themselves.

“Newer Web sites are better than older Web sites,” she says. Learning how to use the Internet when you can’t see is something that takes time, even if the technology is up to date, she says.

“It can be a little slow going. Like anything, you get better at it. It’s a skill you develop,” Andrews says.

Web site developers may find it easier to establish accessibility if they are building a whole new site, rather than upgrading an old one. That’s what officials at Legal Sea Foods found when they decided to replace their Web site in January 2005 because it had become old and stale, says Ken Chaisson, vice president of information technology at the Boston restaurant chain.

Starting from scratch is a “heck of a lot easier” than changing everything on an existing Web site, he says. Financially, making the site accessible to the blind is worth it for Legal even if just five extra groups of people come to one of the restaurants, he says.

But only a small number of companies have upgraded their Web sites, according to some observers. A March 2006 survey found that three-quarters of businesses listed in the FTSE 100 Index in London failed to meet minimum Web site accessibility requirements set by British laws to end discrimination against disabled people.

Observations by Brewer of W3C square with the study’s findings.

“The majority of sites on the Web are not fully accessible to people with disabilities,” she says.

Can the blind, and other disabled people, use your Web site?

Here are 10 quick tests to check accessibility:
1Make sure informational images (like your organization’s logo) have alternative text. Place the cursor over the image. A box should appear with a brief, accurate description.
2Check decorative images for alternative text. If the image has no function other than to look nice, it should not have any alternative text.
3“Listen” to audio and video content with the volume turned off. This is the situation faced by a deaf person. Make sure your Web site supplies written transcripts for all audio content.
4Make sure forms are accessible. Each item in a form should have a prompt text. When you click on the prompt text, a flashing cursor should appear in the box next to the text.
5Check that text can be resized. In Internet Explorer go to View>Font size>Largest. If the text does not increase in size, your site may be inaccessible to users with low vision.
6Check your Web site in the Lynx browser. This is a text-only browser. If a site makes sense in Lynx, it probably fulfills many accessibility guidelines.
7Use your Web site without a mouse. If you can’t navigate your site using just tab, shift-tab, and enter, then neither can people using only a keyboard or voice recognition software.
8Make sure there is a site map
9Make sure alternative text associated with links make sense out of context. Blind users often jump from one link to the next with the tab button.
10Check your Web pages with an automated program, such as WebXACT or Wave.
11Use ASCII text that screen access software can convert to speech or Braille.
12Provide meaningful text labels for hypertext links. Labels like “click here” aren’t good enough.
13Make sure tables and multi-column text does not prevent screen access software from rendering pages in an intelligible and useful manner. Even sophisticated screen access software has trouble with tables that contain many columns, such as bus and train schedules.

Source: Webcredible, London

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