E-commerce for the blind

It’s good business — and it’s the law — for companies to make their websites fully accessible to the visually impaired.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires “public accommodations” to be accessible to the disabled as well as the able-bodied. That’s why stores, government buildings and churches have elevators and ramps, not just stairs. But when the National Federation of the Blind urged retail giant Target Corp. three years ago to modify its website to aid the visually impaired, Target balked. The disabilities act applied to its brick-and-mortar stores, not its branch in cyberspace, Target’s lawyers argued.

And so began a legal battle that ended Wednesday, when Target announced that it would pay $6 million to settle a class-action lawsuit by blind shoppers who’d struggled to use its website. Target also has agreed to change the site in ways suggested by the federation, making Target.com fully accessible to the blind by the beginning of March 2009. Most significantly, perhaps, a federal judge’s pretrial rulings in the case held that the disabilities act and California law did apply to the online counterparts of physical stores and services.

As is so often true, Target will end up spending a lot more to modify its site than it would have spent to design it to be accessible from Day One. There’s plenty of help online for companies trying meet the needs of the disabled. The World Wide Web Consortium, a group that develops voluntary standards for the Web, has been publishing accessibility guidelines for almost a decade, including to help designers make their sites work with the specialized equipment used by the disabled. The blind rely on expensive software that reads aloud the contents of each Web page, so images and forms on the pages must include some identifying text. They also can’t navigate with a mouse — try using one with your eyes closed — so pages need to be designed for navigating with a keyboard. That’s not much to ask.

The problem is that, like Target, too many companies didn’t focus on accessibility when they made the leap into e-commerce. If they had, they would have found an underserved audience of disabled shoppers. A website can be a far more inviting place for a blind person than a crowded mall, if the site is designed the right way. And the number of vision-impaired Americans (at least 1.3 million are legally blind) is expected to grow as the population ages and the incidence of diabetes climbs. With more commerce and services moving to the Internet, it’s increasingly important that companies make accessibility a part of everything they do online. If that’s not clear in federal law, it should be. And although Target may have needed a push to embrace the disabled, at least it’s showing the rest of the retail world how it’s done.

– Los Angeles Times