Stories and Grievances: Special Education
Target is Sued Because Allegedly Their Website Was Not Fully Accessible to the Blind
We say: all computer companies should put specialized screen-reading technology in every computer
November 6, 2006
Do the Rights of the Disabled Extend to the Blind on the Web?
By BOB TEDESCHI, NY TIMES
ACCORDING to an advocacy group, Target declined last year to make its Web site fully accessible to blind people with specialized screen-reading technology last year. If true — and Target has denied the accusation in court — it was a public relations blunder, and it may have been illegal as well.
The National Federation of the Blind sued Target, contending that the company’s inaction violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because the Web site is essentially an extension of its other public accommodations, and as such, should be easily accessible to people with disabilities.
A Target spokeswoman would not comment on those assertions, but in court the company offered testimony from three blind users rebutting the federation’s arguments.
On Sept. 6, a federal judge in California held, in a preliminary ruling on the suit, that in some instances, Web sites must cater to disabled people.
Legal scholars say the full reach of that ruling will not be clear until the case is decided, if it reaches that point.
But in the meantime, the dispute shows that although commercial Web sites have made considerable strides in serving this small fraction of their customer base, there are still substantial difficulties on both sides of the screen.
“Web sites are more useful than they used to be, but there are still a few more hurdles than you’d like to have to go through,” said James Gashel, an executive director of the federation, based in Baltimore.
Mr. Gashel said that most sites accommodate screen-reading technology, which tells blind users the layout of a Web page and describes images, search prompts and other fields into which users can type information to find a product or complete a purchase. (The most popular screen-reading software, Jaws for Windows from Freedom Scientific, sells for around $900.)
When sites do not accommodate screen-reading software, the online shopping or browsing experience breaks down for the 200,000 or so of the nation’s 1.3 million people with vision disabilities who are online, according to Mr. Gashel.
Most online stores go to great lengths to make sure that their sites are accessible to people with disabilities, simply because it is good business to allow as many people as possible to shop. And online-shopping technology specialists say it is not so difficult or costly a task.
“It’s very straightforward to make a site accessible,” said Dayna Bateman, senior information architect at Fry Inc., which operates e-commerce Web sites on behalf of large retailers including Brookstone, Eddie Bauer and Spiegel.
Ms. Bateman said that the more software coding a Web site could offer to help screen readers and other technologies navigate a site, the more likely it was that the Web site would show up on search engine results, because Google, Yahoo and others looked to the same coding for clues about the Web page’s content.
“So it’s actually an advantage in the marketplace,” she said. “I just don’t think a lot of folks are schooled enough in accessibility to know that.”
For advocates of people with disabilities, the most effective tool for ensuring a smooth online experience has been the Americans with Disabilities Act. But because the law was signed in 1990, before the Web was in common use, its language offers little guidance on how to approach questions of online accessibility.
A variety of lawsuits based on Disabilities Act provisions have been brought against online companies, notably one brought by Mr. Gashel’s organization against AOL in 1999, but the suits were settled before judges could offer clear guidance on how, or whether, the law applied to Web sites.
In denying Target’s motion to dismiss the suit two months ago, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of United States District Court in San Francisco held that the law’s accessibility requirements applied to all services offered by a place of public accommodation. Since Target’s physical stores are places of public accommodation, the ruling said, its online store must also be accessible or the company must offer equally effective alternatives.
So what about online-only Web merchants like Amazon.com, BlueNile, Drugstore.com and RedEnvelope as well as fast-growing young online companies like YouTube and MySpace?
“That issue is still up for grabs,” said Michael R. Masinter, a law professor who specializes in Disabilities Act and civil rights issues for Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Mr. Masinter said the Target suit, since it involved an offline merchant’s online operations, would not address that issue.
The case, though, is important to Amazon, because it runs Target’s online store as it does those of a handful of other big offline merchants.
An Amazon spokeswoman, Patricia Smith, said that “as a matter of course we work cooperatively with all of our retail partners to develop and implement the tools and features they want incorporated onto their Web sites.” Amazon, she added, “is already generally usable for people with screen readers.” It has offered a text-only, streamlined site designed for such devices (amazon.com/access).
Mr. Masinter said one potentially thorny issue in the Target suit was whether phone services offered by online merchants were suitable substitutions for the Web site when the site did not work well for technologies like screen-reading software. Given the high cost of maintaining phone-based customer service operations, the question would be of particular interest to retailers and disabled people.
Companies in one emerging category of Internet commerce, online education, have the most ground to make up in adapting their offerings for the disabled, according to Jane Jarrow, president of Disability Access Information and Support, an education industry consultancy.
Most online-only schools, Ms. Jarrow said, “are oblivious to the fact that they have a significant issue here.” Many online-only schools rely on chat rooms, for instance, for class discussions, and screen-reading software does not function properly with chat rooms — nor can learning-disabled students often keep pace with the discussions.
The issue has become critical because many online-only schools became eligible this summer to receive federal student aid. But to get such funds, organizations must adhere to regulations in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which has been updated to say that all Web sites of groups receiving federal money must be accessible to people with disabilities.
Capella University, a Minneapolis-based institution known for online courses, employs a full-time disabilities specialist, who, among other things, has guided the school to avoid using online chat rooms for its courses. Some online schools follow similar approaches, but most do not, said Richard Allegra, director of professional development for the Association on Higher Education and Disability, an industry group.
“I think people are starting to understand their obligations to make their services accessible,” he said. “The question they have is, how to do that?”
National Federation of the Blind Products and Technology