January 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

Seeing the light

In the aftermath of the Target court settlement, retailers are paying more attention to the issue of serving disabled consumers.

In the nearly six months since Target Corp. reached a landmark court settlement with the National Federation of the Blind, agreeing to make its e-commerce site Target.com more accessible to and usable by blind people, there has been a steady stream of inquiries from retailers and groups representing disabled consumers to the law offices of Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP, which represented the federation in the case.

The common request of the callers, says partner Daniel Goldstein, who tried the case on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind, is for advice on how to move forward in making web site improvements for disabled people without further lawsuits.

“Two significant things have happened since the settlement,” Goldstein says. “Other retailers have come to us, asking what they need to do to make their web sites accessible without entering into lawsuits, and blind people have come to us to tell us about web sites they’re frustrated with trying to use.”

The Target settlement with the NFB, along with other recent developments in international web site design standards and a growing base of assistive technology applications for building more universally accessible and usable web sites, is putting growing pressure on retailers to get on board with e-commerce sites that are user-friendly for virtually anyone, regardless of their physical limitations. “There’s no reason why any web developer can’t figure out how to make a web site more accessible,” an NFB spokesman says.

In addition to Target, a growing number of retailers, including Canadian Tire Corp. and Home Hardware Stores Ltd., are making their retail web sites more accessible with innovative technology that provides web page navigation without a keyboard or mouse. “We recognize the importance of accessibility in all dimensions of the customer experience,” says Home Hardware Stores CEO Paul Straus. “It’s more than just the right thing to do. It’s good business practice.”

Making a web site support screen-reading software used by blind people can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $2 million, depending on a site’s size and volume of content, says Anthony Franco, president of site design firm EffectiveUI. Deploying software to make sites usable by sighted people who are physically unable to use a mouse or keyboard in the conventional way, however, can cost far less, without requiring any special infrastructure coding, says Simon Dermer, managing director of Essential Accessibility Inc., a provider of such software.

Substantial benefits

For retailers who make their sites more usable by disabled people, the benefits can be substantial, proponents say. For one thing, the number of people with some form of disability is estimated at more than 50 million in the U.S. alone, with aggregate annual income of more than $1 trillion and $220 billion in discretionary income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Moreover, coding a web site to support assistive technologies like screen readers also improves search engine optimization for improved natural search results, and it renders the site with open technology standards that support new platforms like mobile commerce, says Paul Rosenfeld, senior vice president of federal accessibility solutions at SSB Bart Group, which provides technology that helps design more accessible web sites.

But retailers working toward more usable web sites for disabled people are still the exception to the rule, experts say. “Accessibility and usability are an afterthought for many online retailers,” Franco says. “Most launch a site, then ask if it’s accessible and usable. The truth is, most web retailers are not thinking of usability by disabled people, they’re just thinking, ‘What will the customer do for me?’”

The Target settlement is helping to change that mindset, experts say, as retailers weigh the cost of providing more usable web sites against possible legal action.

In its suit brought in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the National Federation of the Blind alleged Target violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and two California state laws by failing to make Target.com support screen-reading software that enables blind people to convert web site content into audio files.

When Judge Marilyn Hall Patel certified the case as a class action on behalf of all legally blind individuals in the U.S. who had been denied Target’s services when attempting to use Target.com, she made a crucial distinction that went against the retailer’s contention that a web site was not subject to the same public accessibility laws as physical stores, Goldstein says.

“Because the certification addressed services of a business establishment, it avoided the whole question of whether a retail web site is the same as a bricks-and-mortar store,” he says. “That set a terribly important precedent that anyone who puts up a commercial web site operation in California and makes it inaccessible to disabled people does so at their own peril.”

Target, in addition to establishing a $6 million fund against which litigants in the California lawsuit can make claims, has taken several steps to make both its retail e-commerce sites as well as its internal employee sites more usable by blind and other disabled people, a spokeswoman says. These include images coded to support verbal descriptions that assistive technologies like screen readers can interpret, and improved keyboard navigation to assist visitors unable to use a mouse.

Within a few months after the settlement, Apple Inc. agreed in a Massachusetts court to work with the NFB to make its popular iTunes.com site more accessible to blind people. Between the start of the Target case and the settlement, Amazon.com Inc. and RadioShack Corp. also agreed to work with the NFB on accessibility issues.

“We expect there will be more agreements coming down the pike,” says John Kemp, an attorney who specializes in accessibility issues for disabled people at the law firm of Powers Pyles Sutter & Verville PC. “The Target settlement sent a loud and clear signal that if you don’t make your web site accessible, there will be a bull’s-eye on your back.”

Global implications

The settlement has coincided with other recent developments helping to push more web sites toward designs more suitable for people with disabilities. During last year’s United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, more than 130 countries agreed that disabled people have equal rights to public information, particularly in electronic form.

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