Lawsuits Over Target.com Site: Web Accessibility and the Americans with Disabilities Act

I was surprised by several things in the article below:

  • That it’s not clear whether the ADA applies to websites for web-only companies
  • That online educational sites are particularly bad — because of chat rooms
  • The the most-used screenreader costs $900

Today’s NY Times (emphases added):

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….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… (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….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…

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…

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…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.

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One response to “Lawsuits Over Target.com Site: Web Accessibility and the Americans with Disabilities Act

  1. [This was posted in response to a comment that has since been deleted at the request of the comment’s author]
    Bobby is a longtime service for checking webpage compliance with W3C guidelines. Its current incarnation at http://webxact.watchfire.com/ is much improved over the last time I used it — it gives clear advice about which W3C guidelines are violated and where on the page. I used it to test my I214 syllabus and the violations were minor — things like warning about using color the convey information. Probably the biggest warning was about whether there was enough contrast between background and text.

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