Blind patrons sue Target for site inaccessibility

Plaintiffs allege that it's impossible to purchase goods on the retailer's site without help.

Bruce Sexton says he's one of many blind individuals who can live more independently because of the Internet.

When it comes to shopping, for example, the 24-year-old college student doesn't have to get to and navigate brick-and-mortar stores or ask employees for help. Rather, with the help of a keyboard and screen-reading software, he can navigate a Web site and make his purchase.

Or can he?

Sexton, along with a blind advocacy group, filed a class action lawsuit this week against Target, alleging that the retail giant's Web site is inaccessible to the blind and thus violates a California law that incorporates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The suit, filed in Northern California's Alameda County Superior Court by Sexton and the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind (NFB), claims that Target.com, "contains thousands of access barriers that make it difficult, if not impossible, for blind customers to use."

For example, the suit charges that visual information is missing "alt-text," or invisible code that allows screen readers to detect and vocalize a description of an image. In addition, the site lacks accessible image maps, an impediment to jumping to different site destinations, the suit says. As a result, Sexton, who attends the University of California, Berkeley, says that while he can search the site for specific products, he's unable to associate prices with those goods.

Sexton, who is president of the California Association of Blind Students, said he has always been too frustrated with Target.com to reach the point of actually buying something. If he did get to the checkout point, he would face an additional barrier: the Web site requires the use of a mouse to complete a transaction, noted plaintiffs' attorney Mazen Basrawi, who works for Berkeley, Calif.-based Disability Rights Advocates and is also blind.

For a blind person, using a mouse makes it more difficult to gauge one's bearings on a site, explained another representative of the Disability Rights Advocates.

"A blind patron cannot purchase anything at Target.com without sighted help," Basrawi said, adding that Target.com is just one prominent example of many corporate sites that fail to meet minimum Web accessibility standards. "This is the tip of the iceberg."

A Target spokeswoman told CNET News.com on Friday that the company has not yet been served with legal papers, and therefore cannot comment on any specific allegations. "However, we strive to make our goods and services available to all of our guests, including those with disabilities," reads a statement from the company.

Specifically, the suit argues that Target is violating the California Disabled Persons Act, which guarantees full and equal access for people with disabilities to all public places. It also argues that Target is violating the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, because blind patrons have been denied full and equal access to Target.com and have been provided services inferior to non-disabled patrons.

The lawsuit seeks changes to the Web site, an admission of the alleged violations by the company, and an undesignated amount of damages to plaintiffs as well as attorneys' fees.

But Baltimore-based plaintiffs' attorney Daniel Goldstein said the suit's larger goal is educating companies about Web site accessibility issues that can be fixed relatively inexpensively. He added that there are financial incentives for doing so, particularly with the growing numbers of blind baby boomers who are Web consumers. "We're just forcing retailers to make more money," he said.

The NFB wrote to Target in May, asking it to make the site more accessible, according to the plaintiffs. Negotiations broke down in January, which led to the filing of the lawsuit, the organization said.

Target.com is "powered by Amazon.com," something defined on the site as utilizing "Amazon.com technology and patented Web site capabilities such as 1-Click checkout to make shopping faster and more convenient for you."

Basrawi says it's not clear if that Amazon technology is leading to the inaccessibility issues, but he knows of other "powered by Amazon" retail sites that are problematic for the blind.

This is just the latest in a series of lawsuits filed related to Web accessibility for the blind. Goldstein represented the NFB in a case against America Online that ended in a 2000 settlement that led to better Web service for the blind, he said. And in August 2004, Priceline.com and Ramada.com agreed to make their Web pages easier to navigate for the blind and visually impaired as part of a settlement with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

But soon after, a federal appeals court ruled that Web publishers are not required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act in a case filed by an advocacy group for the blind asking Southwest Airlines to redesign its Web site.

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