Screen Reader Advocates Zero in on Target Web Site

In February a grassroots group of blind people filed a class action lawsuit against the Target Corporation. When negotiations broke down, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a class action lawsuit against the Target Corporation. The lawsuit is about alleged problems blind people have with a Web site that is not totally compatible with screen reading programs.

The two types of screen reader programs that are available are Job Access With Speech (JAWS) and Window Eyes (WE), and the primary visual design of this Web site made it impossible for blind screen reader users/consumers to access the same information as sighted consumers. Target’s Web site seems to be designed to give sighted people easy access with the use of the mouse. But blind people who use screen reader programs, like those cited above; use keystrokes on the keyboard rather then the mouse. As a JAWS user, I had trouble navigating around the Target Web site. Part of the problem had to do with the way the Web site was constructed. The Web site has coding errors which make it hard for blind screen reader users. According to David Andrews, Chief Technology Officer, Minnesota State Services for the Blind, “There is some kind of control on the page, to check out, that can only be clicked with a mouse. Neither WE nor JAWS sees it. You can click one click checkout, or check out, and the same page keeps coming up. So, the site is virtually unusable for a blind person using a screen reader. It might be used to tell you what Target has, but little else.”

The NFB charges “that Target’s Web site www.target. com is inaccessible to the blind, violating the California Unruh Civil Rights Act and the California Disabled Persons Act.” (NFB Web site – Target Corporation Sued for Discrimination Against the Blind, February 7, 2006). But according to the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Bob Ulrich, “Target has always been committed to respecting diversity. Our definition is broad, inclusive and focused on recognizing and appreciating the individuality of every team member, guest and community member. As one of our core values, our commitment to diversity is not something we simply talk about; it is something—we act on…”

A Target representative responded to my question, what is Target’s position on the class action lawsuit? The representative told me that Target cannot comment on an ongoing litigation.

Will this lawsuit allow all blind people to gain better access to the Target Web site if a court rules in favor of the NFB? Target Corporation may upgrade its Web site to be more inclusive to the blind and/or screen reader technicians may upgrade as well as invent software programs to better read difficult Web sites. One such device which is stated to do just that is the recently invented Freedom Box, a card size rectangular disc which can be used in a CD slot on any PC with or without JAWS.

According to Mike Calvo, CEO of Twin Cities based Serotek Corporation, “Wherever the site designer provides alternate text, both Freedom Box and JAWS will read it. In the absence of alternate text, Freedom Box will try to obtain a label using our C-SAW technology. C-SAW, which stands for Community-Supported Accessible Web, lets our users label graphical links and share those labels with other users. Users submit their labels to a central repository on the Freedom Box Network, from which the Freedom Box software tries to obtain labels whenever another user visits a Web site. C-SAW lets users make Web sites accessible when the site designers haven’t done so. We’ve offered to license C-SAW to Freedom Scientific for inclusion in JAWS, but they haven’t accepted the offer. Currently, C-SAW is only available exclusively through Freedom Box and System Access.”

The NFB “sued Target Corp. in Alameda County Superior Court claiming that the giant retail chain discriminates because its Web site is inaccessible to blind customers… Target thus excludes the blind from full and equal participation in the growing Internet economy that is increasingly a fundamental part of daily life”… It was alleged in the lawsuit that there was a “lack of access.” The key strokes make it possible for those of us

who are blind screen reader users to navigate around Web sites. Unlike the mouse, key strokes allow screen reader users to navigate a Web site by a single key strokes or key stroke combinations. A Web site that is user friendly to screen readers will allow those of us who are blind to access as much information as sighted people who choose to use the mouse.

A lawsuit filed against Target in California will certainly affect the future on-line shopping access opportunities of blind people across the United States. Target Corporation’s headquarters is located in Minneapolis. I’ve often shopped at the downtown Minneapolis Target store, and the staff was exceedingly helpful to me. The Target employees were aware of my blindness. The clerks often read the printed product information to me and/or they took me to where the products were located in the store. With my products in hand, I took them to the cashier to purchase them. But I could not perform the same purchase task on the Target Web site. When I open the Web site my cursor should be placed at the top of the frame, not at the bottom. I can read some information in the particular tables, but I wasn’t sure that the details I read were for a sweater or a shirt. In short, the Web site was confusing to me. The two Target representatives I talked with were unable to help me easily navigate around the site like sighted people do. I also talked with five blind people who use screen reader programs, and all of us came up with the same results. The Web site was designed in a way in which we had limited navigation ability. I rely on JAWS to read everything to me. Web sites with a lot of graphics, visual displays for sighted people, cannot be read by screen readers. With our screen readers unable to read visual graphics, those of us who use JAWS or WE cannot make the same decision and/or perform the same action on such a Web site as we can inside the store.

As a concerned blind person, I want to see a mutually beneficial outcome for the Target Corporation and for blind people in general. Technology is in a constant state of improvement, and it is realistic for blind screen reader users to access the same information as sighted people if the Web site is modified for easy screen reader use. Such a thing won’t interfere with the graphic depiction of colorful clothing, or other items shown as graphic symbols for a sighted consumer. With tags, blind people can read the details of products that sighted people see. It is a mutually winnable situation for the Target Corporation, blind people and sighted people. Target’s willingness to be inclusive to blind people is an important step to provide us with essentially the same access to the sale of products as any other consumer. With a user friendly screen reader Web site, it will make my tasks easier to research details about certain products of interest. And this lawsuit may make it possible for blind consumers to allow us to be more independent in our search on the Web. According to the NFB, blind people “access Web sites by using keyboards in conjunction with screen-reading software which vocalizes visual information on a computer screen. Target’s Web site—which according to its home page is “powered by Amazon.com”—contains significant access barriers that prevent blind customers from browsing and purchasing products online, as well as from finding important corporate information such as employment opportunities, investor news, and company policies. The plaintiffs charge that www.target.com fails to meet the minimum standard of Web accessibility. It lacks compliant alt-text, an invisible code embedded beneath graphic images that allows screen readers to detect and vocalize a description of the image to a blind computer user. It also contains inaccessible image maps, preventing blind users from jumping to different destinations within the Web site. And because the Web site requires the use of a mouse to complete a transaction, blind Target customers are unable to make purchases on Target.com independently.” – (“Target Corporation Sued for Discrimination against the Blind, February 7, 2006).

My statements were made independent of those made by any organization and organization representative cited in this article. Blind screen reader users have diverse viewpoints about this lawsuit, and this is something which will be revisited in the future. All of us, blind or sighted, need help periodically. The advancement in technology has leveled the playing field, so to speak, a little more in favor of a more fully inclusive public Web site like that of Target Corporation. Target has a great opportunity to live up to its pledge as a store that is inclusive and committed to diversity whether it is total free access on the Web or in the store.

Perhaps Target Web technicians could work with JAWS and Window Eyes technicians to collaborate on ways for blind screen reader users to have better access in all parts of Target’s Web site. Responses to this article can be sent to me, Clarence Schadegg, at cschadegg@mn.rr.com. I look forward to reading your comments.