Why a landmark court case could force you to redo your whole Web site

Why a landmark court case could force you to redo your whole Web site

Summary: Is your Web site accessible to people with disabilities (PWDs)?  Particularly to those with impaired vision?

TOPICS: Browser

Is your Web site accessible to people with disabilities (PWDs)?  Particularly to those with impaired vision? Do you even know what the definition of such accessibility is? Probably not.  But you may have to thanks to a landmark case now getting underway between the National  Federation of the Blind and Target.  According to ComputerWorld:

[Bruce Sexton, who is legal blind] has joined the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) as a plaintiff in a lawsuit that charges Target with violating the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and California's Unruh Civil Rights Act and Disabled Persons Act....The lawsuit, scheduled for a hearing next month at U.S. District Court in San Francisco, could have a broad impact because Target's site is hardly the only one that could be accused of having access barriers, according to attorneys for the plaintiffs....The allegations made against Target by the NFB and Sexton have set the stage for a court showdown that could finally clear up the murky legal question of whether the ADA, which was enacted in 1990, before the dawn of the Internet era, applies to Web sites....The lawsuit claims that because Target's site is difficult if not impossible for the blind to use, the retailer is denying them equal access to the goods and services it provides to customers without disabilities. The NFB this week plans to file a motion for a preliminary injunction, asking the court to order Target to make its Web site accessible promptly.

I contribute to one of the most popular Web sites in the world.  Web 2.0-based sites that are nothing but dynamically generated content take the problem to a whole new level. One that, based on the emails I sometimes get, falls short on accessibility.  And even though I've gone deep on the issue of accessibility and learned more about it than most (in the context of my reporting on the OpenDocument Format), accessibility to me is unfortunately a bit like CPR.  As a very non-regular practitioner, I forget how to do it and need a refresher course.  I'm not proud of this.  But that's the way it is in a lot of companies because of the additional time it takes to make a Web site fully accessible to PWDs and the opportunity cost of spending that time on Web site accessibility versus some other task that may produce more ROI. 

At a bare minimum, to make basic HTML-driven sites more accessible to PWDs, authors of Web content need to program an alternative text tag into their hyperlinks. For example, if you mouse over the link to ComputerWorld above, you should see how I've programmed the alternative text tag to say "Story about disabilities lawsuit between NFB and Target."  When Web authors do this, the text-to-voice screen reading software used by many PWDs puts those PWDs on a level-playing field with people whose sight isn't impaired and who can intuit the purpose of the link based on what they see.  In other words, people with impaired vision need to hear what people without such impairments normally see.  By not religiously using the alternative text tag on all links, you're basically leaving PWDs that rely on text-to-speech assistive technology in the dark.

For many, hyperlinking is already a drag.  So much so that some people don't do it.  Some, like Steve Gillmor, even come up with plausible explanations why you shouldn't bother with  linking (at least from blogs).  But, as a blogger that often quotes the work of others, I feel an obligation to give credit where credit is due and link to the work as I've so far done in this blog entry.  It also does a service to readers.  If you don't read Steve Gillmor regularly and you just saw me say that he has plausible explanations for why it makes sense not to link, you might want to find out what those are without having to spend 10 minutes using Google.  Whatever their reasons  are,  there's a whole class of people who already take as little time as possible to create hyperlinks.  Telling them to add alternative text tags, especially when the authoring software they're using may not make that the simplest of tasks (Wordpress makes it pretty easy), could push them over the edge.

The problem gets worse.  As hard and time consuming as it ease to make plain old HTML more accessible to PWDs, other forms of Web page authoring that result in dynamically generated content may not even have the provisions that straight HTML authoring has.  For example, take any page on your site that's dynamically generating content from links and content found on another Web site that's out of your control.  In that case, you don't have access to the source HTML.  There's no way for you to reliably include meaningful alternative-text tabs.  Web 2.0-based Web sites that are nothing but dynamically generated content take the problem to a whole new level.

The case is a reminder to all of us that we should do what we can to make our sites more accessible (as I have done in this blog post with the links I've included).  I know I will try harder and I'll also discuss the issue internally with the IT staff and designers who have access to many of the links on ZDNet that I don't control.  And, I can fully appreciate the position of PWDs who are demanding equal access to Web sites much the same way they demand and should have equal access to many buildings.  But I can't advocate stretching the American Disabilities Act to cover Web sites.  Given the state of the state of technology (tools, Web 2.0), the Web, technologically speaking, simply isn't equipped to make compliance with such a precedent law possible.  Shame on Target for not making its sites more accessible. Shame on me too when I haven't done it (again, I will try harder).  

But, by not making its sites accessible to PWDs, Target is relinquishing a segment of customers to competitors who are willing to go that extra mile.  Making Target's physical stores ADA-compliant makes sense.  If a PWD makes his or her way to a Target store only to learn he or she can't get into the building to shop, they've sacrificed a significant amount of their personal time (and maybe money in terms of gas or busfare).  But, on the Web, the cost of going to a merchant that's more accessible than Target is the cost of a click. If Target wants to turn its back on an important customer segment, that's Target's problem (and business decision).  Not the court's.

Update: I was in Cambridge this morning and saw Dan Gillmor.  When I told him about the story, he asked if all the items sold in physical stores are marked with Braille.  Precedent set.

Topic: Browser

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  • There was already a case about this

    Against an airline, IIRC. They ruled in favor of the airline.
    • Re: There was already a case about this

      Yes. They did rule against [i]Southwest Airlines[/i], but only because they have no "brick and mortar" locations for the ADA to apply to. That simply isn't the case with Target.
  • ADA justifications

    I'm red headed, left handed, brain damaged, near-sighted, missing part of a digit and have a semi-colon. I demand to be accomodated to play the Midmer Losh auditorium organ at Atlantic City, NJ Boardwalk Convention Hall. But I do have excellent hearing.

    The last sentence in the article summed up my attitude completely. Adam Smith's Invisible Hand will not be forced, in spite of one's taking affront.
  • What a load of...

    Garbage. The internet is SUPPOSED to be visual; that's the whole POINT of it. Why would a blind person be surfing the net?? This politically correct BS is getting ridiculous nowadays. I hope they throw this guy (and his seeing eye dog, too!) out of court.
    • Subtle (and not so subtle) discrimination

      As the owner of a Technology Consulting business, I can tell you that I have several clients that are funded by the California Department of Rehabilitation and that provide services to the PWD community. Wayne62682 is displaying typical attitudes of a person without disability. The internet is about information (as in superhighway) and not about VISION. Unless you exclusively visit porn sites, or play Flash-based games, you probably READ things, like reviews, blogs, articles, etc. And I noticed your comment was textual, so obviously you can, and do, read. If you want to know why a person with visual disability would be surfing the net, let me give you some examples: content that is not available in Braille, access to resources for PWDs, and how about being part of a web-based community, like a forum that deals with a persons OTHER interests than the fact that they have a disability.

      I will not even dignify your insensitive comment about the seeing eye dog with a reply, since the readership here is probably intelligent enough to see it for what it is.
      • reply to "what a load of crock..."

        What an arrogant small minded living in the box person you are MR. "what a load of crock." Do you know how many of us will soon be elders? That elderly society members will be the majority? That most of us loose a lot of our 'sight' function as we do reach our elder years?

        The legally blind members of our community are not the only ones who suffer when information is not in an available format. You may think that a blind person has no need to be using the net; to that assumption I assert that you do not think very well. Legally blind students, attorneys, and other professionals make use of the net services and the community just the same as any one else.

        In the interest of being civil I will keep my other opinions to myself regarding your intellect and intelligence level.
      • Well said.

    • ridiculous indeed?

      I only wish you could as they say, walk a mile in their shoes.
      Why would a blind person be surfing the net??
      Maybe to try expanding horizons that are limited by a disability which you seem to have no ability to comprehend, very sad.
    • It shouldn't be about political correctness

      I work for a school district, and have had to use some of the software and equipment our kids with disabilites do. Do you really expect a High School student to not do research on the internet? Do you expect them to not be interested in the same things their friends are? Granted you miss out on a lot of what the Internet has to offer if you are blind, but it isn't just for viewing nudity. A reasonable amount of accomodation should be attempted, and not just ignorantly dismiss the vision impaired and blind outright. For the record, I don't think the case has merit.
    • The Load is yours...

      Part of me hopes you only wrote this to get a reaction and a human being can't possibly be this incensitive. The other part has met incensitive people and hopes you climb out of the DNA pool while there's still hope.

      The INTERNET is about information, not vision. It wasn't always visual. It used to be all text.

      and BTW... "Seeing-Eye" is a brand name, not a classification. They are 'guide animals' (because they don't have to be dogs either) and Seeing Eye is one of a handfull of highly-qualified organizations that train them.
    • You're the reason the disabled sue

      What an appallingly ignorant thing to say. It's precisely because of small-minded bigots like you that our disabled fellow citizens have to resort to legislation and lawsuits to ensure that even their most rudimentary rights are protected.

      Your opinions are way, way beneath contempt.
  • XForms

    As David points out, the OASIS OpenDocument Accessibility Sub Committee has been working on an advanced elements/attributes model. Recently they began an investigation of using XForms as a means of solving the accessibility problem. There are many ways of eXtending ODf, but what they really seek to do is standardize both the eXtension model and the way applications work with accessibility eXtended ODf.

    The testing isn't complete yet, but XForms is a rather elegant and powerful way of achieving these objectives. It also means that the methodology they come up with would be transferable/useful across the desktop and device application layer as well as web pages.

    This may be of particular significance when considering that many desktop and device accessibility applications require special device drivers and enhancing peripherals. It's hard work, but done right Open Standards can do amazing things. Like simplify the way a browser (or any application) hitting a properly tagged web page or ODf document, engages a specialized device layer.

    Time to practice up on my XForms skills,
  • I love it

    I have been saying this for quite some time. I have mentioned on numerous occassions that AJAX and related technologies are nearly impossible for the blind (or otherwise vision impaired) to use with screen readers, and that the development of "podcast only" content discriminates against the deaf and hearing impaired.

    All of a sudden, it's an issue. I saw this coming over the hill, it was only a matter of time.

    When are the AJAX/Web 2.0 folks going to understand? Their proposed "solution" only "works" for a portion (albeit a large one) of the potential users out there. The farther and farther they get away from basic HTML, the worse the problem becomes.

    The Web, as a platform for rich client functionality, simply is not workable. The mechanisms do not exist for things like accessability, portability, disconnection from the network, syncing, etc. to work well, if at all. Traditional desktop applications solved these problems years ago.

    The few advantages to be had with AJAX/Web 2.0 are better solved by developing, standardizing, and implementing a set of protocols and technologies specifically aimed at solving the issues that AJAX/Web 2.0 attempts to solve, not by kludging together an absolute mess based on existing standards and protocols.

    Justin James
  • It's just good usability.

    Actually David, alternative text for links isn't as important as ALT tags for graphics.

    Although this debate has been couched about people with disabilities and the ADA, what most Web developers don't realize is that this is really an issue that developers should think about for all users. About 20% of people in this country classify themselves as having a disability (U.S. Census), but, further, Microsoft recently published research that suggests that more than half of people who use technology have *functional* limitations, such as having a hard time seeing a TV or getting tired after a short time using a computer.

    If developers have been studying basic usability principles, they probably already are doing the main things they need to that would cover most major accessibility concerns. Beyond accessibility, many of the things you do to improve accessibility, such as ALT tags, also improves your organization's presence on the Web. For example, search engines are better able to access and organize content, PDA- and cell phone-based browsers can use the content more effectively, and other nonstandard browsers, such as voice browsers, can access the content, extending your Website's reach to many more users.

    In terms of ROI, the question should really be which customers are you willing to give up in a highly competitive environment?
    • So true!

      Mr. Klein -

      The problems that you cite are exactly the type of thing that the "technology for the sake of technology" cheerleaders tend to not even consider. Why? Because in their minds, it is not actual people using these programs, a wide swath of society, but themselves and people just like themselves. That is to say, young people who still have good eyesight, good hearing, good motor control, the best monitor, the best/fastest computer, the best/fastest Internet connection, etc. It's like the disaster that happened to Web design around the late 90's, early 00's, when all of the web designers suddenly got cable modems & DSL, and did not see that their sites were taking 2 minutes to load for the average dialup user.

      Justin James
  • walking a mile in their shoes / section 508

    My fiancee is legally blind, and has been a consultant in the development of accessibility devices. People are working very hard to keep nearly-blind and blind people in the flow of information, and it's the right thing to do to be a responsible corporate citizen. Oddly enough, we have had an ongoing problem with the local Target store (defendant in this case) regarding accessibility, they plow the parking lot onto the sidewalk so *noone* coming from the bus can get there safely. Complaints led nowhere, except when I brought a camera and they came out and told me "next time" I should address the leader on duty. There have been plenty of next times already, and plenty of talking with them! Imagine if someone kept parking where you need to drive. It would get you kinda ticked, wouldn't it? Same with the inaccessible store, and so to the website. PWD's are just trying to get through the day like the rest of us. The Federal government already has Section 508 standards, anyone who provides web services to them knows about that, including the content management consulting firm I'm doing work for. I'm a conservative, I don't really believe in the nanny state, but boy do I see how tough the world is if you can't see, or even can't see well.
  • BIGGER Case/Missed implications & lost Jobs

    1. There has been at least one bigger/more prominent/significant case than those mentioned: at the time of the Sydney Olympics the non-govt. body running te event was sued over its websites by a single blind man - same issue: accessibility to their website using his standard tools. He won, bigtime.

    2. I think the author of this (excellent) piece missed an important implication: all those sites out there that are 'IE Ver X+/Windows only' and which do not comply with relevant web standards are at risk to anyone who chooses to assert that all their tools work fine with Standards-compliant sites but find these 'IE Only' sites to be incomprehensible. It'll only take one high profile case and there'll be a few high-level IT/NetHeads looking for jobs as their former employers scramble to rebuild their web presences to be Compliant and accessible.

    A good thing, too, IMNSHO.

    Wayne T
  • Thank God I'm not the only person....

    ...that's concerned over the lack of accessibility in a huge number of corporate websites. Well, apart from wayne62682, as he's obviously lacking any intelligence at all.

    A large Encyclopedia company that I used to work for (in the UK) came up with the following excuse as to why they wouldn't spend money making sure that their site was accessible to PWDs: "Our servers are in the US, so it's something that we don't have to worry about dealing with." So, with our own Disability Discrimination Act (also covering the web), I think they might be in for a rough ride over the next few years...

    Ultimately, in commerce (or ecommerce, wayne62682), a customer is a customer...and if you're not providing an accessible service for as many customers as you possibly can, then you're not providing a service at all.
  • my two cents

    I think a much larger issue would be the cross-browser compliant issue. There?s enough to deal with right now being a developer such as coding standards ? browser compliant, tight project timelines, and server security, Fear of getting outsourced? We?re just getting nip picky now with the alt tags everywhere.

    Does anyone even know the statistics on how many legally blind users surf the net?

    I can see adding accessibility for forums and news posts, but Target? They sell cheap products that you?ll probably want to actually ?see? before you purchase. Why would you sue? If you don?t like their website/business then try there competitors. We sue too much!

    I don?t mean to offend anyone. Just a developer and that?s my two cents.
    • How many?

      "Does anyone even know the statistics on how many legally blind users surf the net?"

      Just out of perverse logic, all the legally blind USERS surf the net. Doh!

      You're a developer and they actually pay you for that kind of fuzzy reasoning?