Target.com Lawsuit Shines Light on Net Access for Blind

A federal district court judge issued two landmark decisions Tuesday in a nationwide class action suit against Target charging that the retail giant has “failed and refused” to make its Web site accessible to the blind.

Brought by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the suit charges that by failing to make its site accessible to blind users via vocalization software or other tools, Target has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as two California civil rights statutes: the California Unruh Civil Rights Act and the California Disabled Persons Act.

In Tuesday’s ruling, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel not only certified the case as a class action on behalf of blind Internet users nationwide under the ADA, she also held that Web sites such as Target.com are required by California law to be accessible. Injunctive relief and statutory minimum damages are at stake; the court denied Target’s motion for summary judgment.

No More Second Class

“This is a tremendous step forward for blind people throughout the country who for too long have been denied equal access to the Internet economy,” said Marc Maurer, president of the NFB. “All e-commerce businesses should take note of this decision and immediately take steps to open their doors to the blind.”

Nonprofit firm Disability Rights Advocates, as well as Brown, Goldstein & Levy, Schneider & Wallace, and Peter Blanck, chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute and professor at Syracuse University, were certified as counsel for the class.

“Target Corporation has led a battle against blind consumers in a key area of modern life: the Internet economy,” said Larry Paradis, executive director and co-director of litigation for Disability Rights Advocates. “The court’s decision today makes clear that people with disabilities no longer can be treated as second-class citizens in any sphere of mainstream life. This ruling will benefit hundreds of thousands of Americans with disabilities.”

Request for Review

Target, not surprisingly, said it was disappointed by the ruling, but pointed out that class certification is a procedural ruling only and in no way addresses the merit of the NFB’s claims.

“Target is committed to serving all of our guests and we believe that our Web site is fully accessible and complies with all applicable laws,” the company said. “We will request an immediate review of the ruling granting class certification and we are confident that we will prevail on the merits of this case. Regardless of the outcome, accessibility will remain a priority for Target and we will continue to implement new technologies to enhance the usability of our Web site for all of our guests.”

Access Guidelines

It’s essential for people with disabilities to be able to access the Web, Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initative at the World Wide Web Consortium, told the E-Commerce Times.

“Web access guidelines, which can help commercial sites such as Target’s ensure access for people with disabilities, have been available for years,” Brewer added. “Many resources exist to help organizations ensure their sites will meet the needs of all their users.”

By bringing Internet sites into the domain of the ADA, however, the ruling on Tuesday has the potential to have far-reaching implications for e-commerce.

Beyond the Blind

“The Internet industry has made great strides with Web site interfaces, and companies would naturally want to include all citizens in the sphere of Internet commerce,” Raymond Van Dyke, a Washington-based technology attorney, told the E-Commerce Times. “This class certification action indeed signals that the judge in that case feels that some interface tools are deficient for at least one demographic.”

Indeed, should the case go to trial, there could be a precedent set for users with all kinds of disabilities.

“Assuming the parties in this case do not quickly reach a settlement, experts will opine on the reaches of Internet and other technologies to all people and not just the blind,” Van Dyke noted.

‘Wake-Up Call’

For companies doing business on the Web, this ruling could serve as a “startling wake-up call,” added Sean Kane, an attorney with Drakeford & Kane.

While the ruling isn’t a decision that there has been any kind of infringement, “I don’t believe that most e-commerce sites out there have ever considered they have to comply with ADA provisions or California’s related laws,” Kane told the E-Commerce Times. “It’s telling to see that the judge feels this is a potential ADA violation.”

Because the decision was made by a federal district judge, it doesn’t set a precedent nationwide — just within the district of the judge, Kane noted.

“That being said, however, other judges may look at this and decide similar cases in the same way because of this decision,” he pointed out.

As a result, e-commerce sites are going to have to take a new look at the way their sites are designed, Kane added.

“I think e-commerce sites really are going to need to have their Web sites vetted for this type of situation to ensure there is technology available to the blind,” he said.

Possible Precedent

Ultimately, as Van Dyke noted, the implications could extend beyond accommodating blind users to make provisions for users with other disabilities as well, he said.

“This case may be appealed, or it may be settled, but either way, the decision is out there now, and neither possibility will change the fact that a judge made this ruling,” Kane concluded. “Other judges may find fault with it or they may go along with it; it could be a precedent or could create a split in the courts.”

Meanwhile, Kane added, “This is something I’ll be discussing with my clients.”

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