Screen Readers Navigate Path to High Court

They Seek Civil Rights in Web Accessibility Bruce Sexton, a blind University of Berkley student, simply wanted to independently purchase […]

They Seek Civil Rights in Web Accessibility

Bruce Sexton, a blind University of Berkley student, simply wanted to independently purchase a product from the Target Web site. But when Target Corporation chose to fight to keep its Web site inaccessible to blind people, he took action. In the spring of 2006, The National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the NFB of California and Mr. Sexton filed a class-action lawsuit against Target, after months of negotiations between Target and the NFB had broken down.

The plaintiffs frame the suit as a civil rights issue, as the blind are denied the same independent online access to the Target Web site enjoyed by other segments of the population. Target has taken the position, in part, “that no civil rights laws apply to the Internet.” Ironically Target would likely benefit from the lawsuit; with expanded access, more Target products will be purchased by the large world-wide population of blind people. (According to the May 2006 U.S. Census, about 7.9 million people age 15 and older had difficulty seeing the words and letters in ordinary newspaper print, including 1.8 million who were unable to see.)

The lawsuit, now on its way to the United States Supreme Court, has put Web designers on notice to build Web sites that make it possible for all shoppers to enjoy the right and opportunity to independently purchase the product of their choice. According to the United Nations report, 2005, “In the United Kingdom, 75 per cent of the companies of the FTSE 100 Index on the London Stock Exchange do not meet basic levels of Web accessibility, thus missing out on more than $147 million in revenue.” And yet, the largest minority group in the world is people with disabilities.” (Around 10 per cent and rising, according to the World Health Organization.)

The plaintiffs charged that “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. [The Target Web site] also contains inaccessible image maps and other graphical features, preventing blind users from navigating and making use of all of the functions of the Web site.” 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.”

The plaintiffs are represented by the law firm Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) of Berkeley CA. Mazen M. Basrawi, a fellow at DRA, summarized the wide-reaching ramifications of the lawsuit. “The court clarified that the law requires that any place of public accommodation is required to ensure that it does not discriminate when it uses the internet as a means to enhance the services it offers at a physical location.”

Sources include: National Federation for the Blind and Disability Rights Advocates

Author’s statement: I am not an active member of any organization of and for the blind. My story and my comments are made independently of any organization of and for blind people.