December 29, 2006, 12:00 AM

Target lawsuit pries open the business case for helping disabled people shop online

Some web site challenges are not as daunting as they appear—while the payoff for meeting them can be far greater than expected. That’s what some experts in making retail web sites accessible to people with disabilities contend in the aftermath of legal action initiated against Target Corp. by the National Federation of the Blind and a consumer group.

Some web site challenges are not as daunting as they appear-while the payoff for meeting them can be far greater than expected. That’s what some experts in making retail web sites accessible to people with disabilities contend in the aftermath of legal action initiated against Target Corp. by the National Federation of the Blind and a consumer group, which charge that the big retailer violates federal and California laws in failing to make its web site useable by visually impaired consumers.

Although the case against Target may be months away from being settled, it is already beginning to raise awareness in the retail industry about the work and rewards of adhering to the needs of shoppers with disabilities, says Kathy Wahlbin, who specializes in site useability issues for disabled people as director of user experience for Mindshare, a web technology marketing and consulting firm. “After the filing of the Target lawsuit, a lot of companies-especially retailers-are taking notice of web site accessibility,” she says. “Before, many retailers weren’t even thinking about it.”

1.5 million customers
At the same time, retailers are becoming more aware of the size of the online market represented by consumers with disabilities, Wahlbin and others says. “About 1.5 million visually impaired people in the U.S. use the Internet,” says Judy Colbert, a Crofton, Md.-based consultant and writer who specializes in web usability issues.

Moreover, the number of consumers with some form of physical need who can benefit from improvements to site usability is far greater, experts say. A study by Forrester Research Inc. and commissioned by Microsoft Corp. found that 25% of all computer users have some form visual impairment, and that 57% of all computer users said they were likely to benefit from efforts designed to improve the usability of web sites by people with disabilities.

“More retailers realize now that they can definitely make a business case to do this, especially as they look at the number of aging Baby Boomers,” says Wahlbin, who is also the founder of site usability consulting firm RampWEB, which now operates as a division of Mindshare.

There are several steps retailers can take to make sites more accessible and useable by people with disabilities, whether they’re blind or have a relatively mild disability that makes it difficult to view all objects on a site or to use a mouse, experts say.

One common introductory step, for example, is to make readily available a list of keystroke commands that can duplicate the effect of using a mouse to click through a site. Another is to educate consumers on the ability to use tools built into computer operating software that enlarge type and adjust the number of pixels on web pages to make them better fit an online shopper’s computer screen.

Supporting braille
To address the more complicated needs of blind and visually impaired shoppers and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, however, retailers need to take more sophisticated steps to make their sites compatible with software systems that translate web page content into audio files that shoppers can hear or into braille reports that they can read.

One option is to use software like Lift Assistive from New York-based UsableNet Inc., which is designed to dynamically generate text-only versions of web pages, in effect making the pages readable by assistive software tools that translate content into audio files and braille reports. Such tools include JAWS software from Freedom Scientific, St. Petersburg, Fla., which uses text-conversion and speech synthesizer technology to produce audio versions of web pages. JAWS also can be used to convert web page content into data outputted to braille machines. Freedom Scientific also produces PAC Mate, a device that incorporates JAWS software to convert web content accessed on handheld devices to audio files and braille reports.

Most web sites can support software tools like JAWS without building a full text-only version, but focusing instead on designing web pages with alternate text (often referred to as alt text) that sits behind images and other parts of content to make them readable by assistive software as well as to make them more universally viewable by all types of web browsers, Wahlbin says. The tools to create alt text are included in most basic web design programs. “There’s no special software that web site operators need to buy to make their sites more accessible,” Wahlbin says. “The biggest requirement is simply understanding how people with disabilities use the web.”

But forcing online retailers to adjust their web sites for people with disabilities is another matter. The legal heart of the issue currently focuses on whether a web site is considered a place of public accommodation, which would subject it to accessibility requirements of Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In September, a federal district court judge sitting in the Northern District of California rejected a motion by Target that a web site should be exempt from that law because it is not a usual place of public accommodation, clearing the way for the lawsuit. But the ruling was limited in scope: The court ruled that only the features of a web site directly related to a physical store-a store locator, or a section for requesting in-store pickup of online orders, for example-must satisfy the law’s usability standards, Wahlbin says.

Accessibility proponents applauded the action nonetheless. “This ruling is a great victory for blind people,” National Federation of the Blind president Marc Maurer says.

Wahlbin predicts that it will take a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to establish whether full site usability for disability will apply to all U.S.-based web site content and features, whether or not an online retailer also sells through physical stores.

Meantime, other momentum favors complete site usability for all retail web sites, she adds. The United Kingdom already requires that, and the United Nations recently passed a directive calling for it. “It’s clear to a lot of people that web sites really are a place of public business,” she says.

 

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