In what is being called a landmark precedent for accessibility, Federal District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled on Thursday, September 7th, that a retailer may be sued if its website is inaccessible to the blind. Target had filed for a dismissal by arguing that no law requires them to make an accessible website. The Court denied this motion and held that both federal and state civil laws apply to a website.

Some legal “mumbo-jumbo” for the wanna-be lawyers:

“The court held: “the ‘ordinary meaning’ of the ADA’s prohibition against discrimination in the enjoyment of goods, services, facilities or privileges, is that whatever goods or services the place provides, it cannot discriminate on the basis of disability in providing enjoyment of those goods and services.” The court thus rejected Target’s argument that only its physical store locations were covered by the civil rights laws, ruling instead that all services provided by Target, including its Web site, must be accessible to persons with disabilities.”

Basically, Target tried to argue that accessibility only applied to the physical locations and not the website. The court disagreed saying that all services must be accessible to “persons with disabilities.”

While this is only a ruling on a plea for dismissal, and not the actual case decision, it is interesting to note that this court is NOT making a distinction between a physical store and its website. This is critical to the case that the National Federation of the Blind is making.

The ruling is based more on California’s civil laws than the Federal accessibility laws, as Target specifically challenged the interpretation of civil rights laws in application to the Internet. Again, I see this as more of an interesting interpretation than a “landmark”. It’s more like legal wrangling of the terms and specific laws, codes, and issues involved, which is typical.

The main cause of this issue is that the website does not employ the use of ALT atributed in the design of the site. The absense of the ALT attributes are so eggregious, that in some cases vital information to a shopper is lost if they are not able to see the images. Sales, discounts and free shipping offers are contained in graphic text, and are not read by screenreaders.

The National Federation of the Blind approached Target about this issue in May of 2004, but after 10 months of negotiotions Target was unwilling to change the website. For something as simple as ALT attributes, it seems silly.

My take on this . . .
The last thing I think we need is a bunch of lawsuits on the heels of this one – ‘sue websites just because we can’. I tend to side with the free enterprise system where the consumer votes with his money. If web retailers are willing to ignore a large segment of the population, then they will pay the price in lost sales. It is my hope that someone will be creative enough to build something better, rather suing companies to make them change.

Invention is much better than coercion.