Blind Student Hits Target with Class Action Lawsuit

Using alt tags on your web site is good for SEO purposes and improves site accessibility. If you need another reason to convince you or your clients to use alt tags, how does avoiding a lawsuit strike you? Discount retailer Target found itself on the wrong end of one early last year that just received class action status, thanks to the inaccessibility of its web site to certain users.

The drama started back in February of 2006, when Bruce Sexton Jr., a blind student at the University of California-Berkeley, first filed a lawsuit against Target in Alameda County (it was moved to San Francisco the following month). Sexton serves as the president of the California Association for Blind Students, and filed his suit in association with the National Federation for the Blind. As you probably guessed, there is an agenda here. The whole point of the lawsuit is to focus attention on the plight of blind web surfers, who must use special screen reader technology to navigate web sites.

It’s not just a niche issue, though. “What I hope is that Target and other online merchants will realize how important it is to reach 1.3 million people in this nation and the growing Baby Boomer population who will also be losing vision,” Sexton noted. Thanks for reminding me about my approaching blindness, Sexton; now excuse me while I clean my glasses…

All joking aside, however, this is a serious issue. Site owners should be thinking in terms of accessibility from the very beginning, because it’s much easier to build it in from the ground up than to go back and fix everything. Target’s site is quite large and established, so it would be a lot of work to fix it. Not only is the lack of alt tags a problem, but the site includes image maps that can’t be read by screen readers. This makes it impossible for blind web surfers to navigate Target.com without assistance from a sighted person. Importantly, at the time the lawsuit was filed, certain crucial page elements, such as the “Add to Cart” graphic, did not have alt tags, making the site unusable for any blind web surfer wanting make a purchase.

The US passed laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act to force places of “public accommodation” to make changes to allow access to those with disabilities. This is why many restaurants have ramps to allow those in wheelchairs to get in, and public restrooms boast at least one stall with handrails and enough space to fit the mobility-impaired. The current lawsuit argues that a retailer’s web site is an extension of its physical store, and should therefore be bound by the same laws.

The good news for blind web surfers is that Judge Marilyn Patel, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, certified the case as a class action that can be joined by all blind Internet users throughout the United States who have tried without success to access Target’s web site. But that’s not the only class recognized in this lawsuit. There is a second class, specifically for blind Californians who have tried without success to access Target.com.

Apparently, it’s not just the Americans with Disabilities Act that applies here – or more precisely, might apply here; whether it actually does apply is a matter for the courts to decide. California passed two statutes that might also have a bearing on this case, namely the California Unruh Civil Rights Act and the California Disabled Persons Act. So even if the suit does not proceed well at the federal level, it may fare better at the state level.

Frankly, it’s going to need all the help it can get. These kinds of lawsuits have not met with much success in recent years. A few years ago, the National Federation for the Blind sued America Online on grounds similar to the current suit. This met with mixed success; AOL changed its site to bring it into compliance, so the NFB dropped the lawsuit – which prevented the setting of any precedent. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer threatened Priceline.com and Ramada.com with lawsuits in mid-2004 unless they made their sites accessible. They did so, but again, this did not set a precedent. In September of the same year, however, a case against Southwest.com went to trial – and Southwest won, because a judge ruled that the ADA applies only to physical spaces, not web sites.

Still, it’s not unusual for laws to be updated to take changing technologies and needs into account; the Telecommunications Act of 1996 is just one of many examples of this. With the Internet becoming more and more important to people’s lives, it is quite possible that we will see some kind of ruling that stretches the ADA’s provisions to the web.

You would think that a large retailer like Target would know better than to allow its web site to be lacking in items that would make it more accessible – to say nothing of the graphical site maps and other features that make it less accessible to a portion of Target’s, um, target audience. Well, Amazon is the company that makes Target’s ecommerce possible, and this e-tailer has earned a reputation for inaccessible page design. Even if it hadn’t, though, Target is hardly alone in making this kind of mistake.

The Web Standards Project, “a grassroots coalition fighting for standards which ensure simple, affordable access to web technologies for all,” according to its web site, has been covering this lawsuit since the beginning. Matt May, writing for the site, described Target as middle of the road when it comes to its site accessibility. He reserved his nastiest words for Costco.com.

“Never mind the distinct lack of alt text,” May began, warming to his topic. “Costco’s homepage contains over a hundred subcategories in hidden drop-down boxes. But they’re not links…They’re table cells, with mouse events that fire JavaScript function to load the relevant pages.” Worse, from a blind web surfer’s perspective, is that Costco is far from alone; “Costco is only one example of many I found,” May points out. But it’s particularly ironic that Costco’s site is so problematic, since it bends over backwards to accommodate the needs of its customers, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Many companies are not totally unresponsive when these kinds of problems with their web sites are pointed out to them. Indeed, Target made some changes to its site after the lawsuit was filed. It then tried to get the judge to dismiss the suit based on the changes it made, but apparently they weren’t good enough.

Of course, this brings up the question that must be on your mind right now: what kinds of changes should you consider making to your web site to make it more accessible? Or, if you’re a web site designer or SEO, what do you need to convince your clients to do, to do well by them and their site visitors?

Well, the first and most obvious thing you need to do is place alt= tags on all of your images. This will enable screen readers to understand and “read” their content to blind visitors to your web site. That’s a current best practice anyway. Make sure the text in your alt= tag is actually descriptive; don’t treat it as just another place to stuff keywords.

There are other things you need to be careful about as well. Are you thinking of adding some of that wonderful AJAX to your web site to improve your visitors’ experiences? Remember May’s comments about JavaScript, and think twice. Also, depending on exactly how the code sets it up, there are some versions of tag clouds that are difficult for screen readers to handle.

If you still want to use AJAX, it’s not impossible to have your cake and eat it too. On Webmaster World, forum poster cmarshall notes that “I use AJAX quite a bit, and my sites are accessible up the yin-yang. It just takes some extra effort, which is actually often a tall order, as time==money. I have the ‘luxury’ of doing sites pro bono, which means I can take the time to ‘polish the fenders’ without fretting” about lost money.

Don’t assume that only ecommerce web sites need to become accessible. The blind are visitors with interests just like any others. True, they have special needs, but they’re also interested in content, making them not so different from your other visitors. And just like your other visitors, if you make it easy for them to find what they’re looking for, they’ll keep coming back. You’d be crazy to cut yourself off from a potential market – and yet, plenty of web sites do just that.

I’ll close with a story from Webmaster World that might serve as encouragement. A poster going by the handle Beagle reported not having Flash on his office computer; the department PC manager will not install it. His department does cancer research. He was on the web site of a major national cancer organization and noticed an interesting book for sale there that he hadn’t seen before, so he went to the site’s store area to buy it. “The entire store set-up was done in flash! I couldn’t even see images of the book covers, much less purchase anything. I emailed them, thinking that surely they must have an alternate way of buying something, but the reply was more or less, ‘Sorry, that’s how it is.’”

That represents one lost sale for the site, and it probably wasn’t the only one it lost. If you make your web site more accessible, you just might see your sales go up, simply because fewer of them will be lost. Or, to put it in terms of dollars and cents, accessibility is good for business.

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