Target sued because of bad website

Posted on August 27, 2008

In case you missed it, the National Federation of the Blind recently won a reasonably large lawsuit against Target, claiming that did not meet minimal standards for people using screen access technology. While I normally side with the little guy over big corporations, there are a number of ridiculous things involved with this ruling, so I'll try to point out each one individually.

1. Websites as public places: The main claim of the suit is that Target's website violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the California Disabled Persons Act, which gives people with disabilities full rights to all public places. But should the Internet be deemed a public place? It makes sense from the standpoint of certain websites, but many include password-protected areas that are, at the very least, semi-private. It's perfectly acceptable to visit and leave it on your screen all day, but if you tried to remain inside an actual Target store all day, you'd probably be kicked out when the store closes. The line is somewhat blurred between public places when it comes to a website.

2. Screen readers: Whose job is it specifically to make sure that screen readers for the blind work properly? In this particular case, it's fairly obvious that the Target website was missing key ingredients to help screen readers (for example, alt tags, which allow a web developer to input text for an image). But the basis of the lawsuit is that the screen readers didn't work, which means that the ruling had to assume that whatever screen readers exist currently must work. That is a leap to take when looking at similar technologies. For instance, why not require that the screen reader be adept at converting images to text? OK, so the technology isn't completely ready ... but whose fault is that?

3. Prior rulings: Previously, courts have ruled that disability acts do not cover the web. So why is there a change now?

4. Jurisdiction: Can the National Federation of the Blind sue companies in Europe for not complying to web standards? Can the NFB sue me if I'm missing an alt tag on my website? On, a screen reader should be able to find a phone number to call Target's customer service for ordering information. While that's not that most optimal solution, it seems like that would allow a user to still purchase items without actually entering the store, although I could be wrong about this.

Should websites be accessible to the blind? Of course they should be. If they're not, should companies have to pay out additional money to the NFB? I don't think so. There is not a set requirement for web standards in accessibility, although the Web Accessibility Initiative is a step in the right direction. I'd like to think it would be more appropriate to come up with a better solution to making websites better than to just start suing companies.