May 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Opening e-retailers` eyes

Why merchants should—and how they can—make their web sites accessible to the blind.

Web shoppers who mouse over a Microsoft keyboard depicted on`s home page see a small text tag appear next to the product image, which reads, "Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite." But shoppers at could mouse over a home page image of Mia, the doll line`s newest introduction, and no text tag will appear-ditto for many other product images on the web pages of many other online retailers.

The descriptive line of text is extraneous information for most web shoppers. But for an increasingly vocal group of web users, the text tag means the difference between comprehending what is shown in that image and being left in the dark.

That group is blind and vision-impaired Internet users. The text tag, or alternate text as it`s called by developers, is what allows screen readers-assistive software used by blind and vision-impaired individuals-to translate the visual information displayed in a picture or graphic into synthesized speech that tells them what the graphic shows. Without the tag there is nothing for the screen reader to read, and no way for the blind user to understand what`s on that area of the page.

The presence of such alternate text is part of what defines an accessible web site-and according to Priority One guidelines established by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium, the international body that sets standards for development of the web, there are 15 more. Screen readers, purchased and owned by individual users, transform visual information into audio information. They also assist blind web users, who use keyboard commands instead of a mouse to navigate web pages, to move around a site, by recognizing and reading headings on a web page. The user can then respond with keyboard commands that move the cursor from element to element.

But unless site operators build web pages with supporting architecture including alternate text, headings and other elements in accordance with accessibility guidelines, screen readers don`t work. Admittedly, it`s a relatively small proportion of the typical e-retailer`s customer audience that would need to use a screen reader. So with seemingly endless priorities to juggle already in trying to grow a business, why should e-commerce site operators add making their web sites accessible to that list?

Class action

One reason for retailers to take an interest if they haven`t already is the suit brought by The National Federation of the Blind against retailer Target Corp. The suit charges that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying access to blind Internet users. The federation`s complaint alleges that lacks the necessary alternate text that would support screen readers. It also alleges that has inaccessible image maps and other graphical features that prevent blind users from navigating and making use of all of the functions on the web site. It further charges that because the site requires the use of a mouse to complete a transaction, blind Target customers also are unable to make purchases on independently.

In October, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted class action status to a lawsuit against Target. The judge also ruled that e-commerce sites are required by California law to be accessible to blind shoppers. The judge in February agreed to a schedule for the implementation of phase one of the trial, which will address the question of Target�s liability. That trial was scheduled to get underway in March. A second phase of the trial will address damages, if Target is found liable in the trial`s first phase.

National Federation of the Blind president Marc Maurer called the granting of class action status to the suit "a tremendous step forward for blind people throughout the country. All e-commerce businesses should take note of this decision and immediately take steps to open their doors to the blind," he says.

With the outcome of the Target case pending, it remains to be seen just how motivating a ruling in favor of the National Federation of the Blind would be to retailers whose sites are not now accessible.

One retailer not waiting for that outcome to take action is Though it provides text tags with images on its home page, it has more work to do in achieving full accessibility. In March 2007 the e-retailing giant announced an agreement with the National Federation of the Blind under which it would work with the federation to make fully accessible to blind users by the end of 2007.

In January, and the association announced an extension, provided for in the original agreement, due to "the complexity of the task," under which the goal of access on would be completed by the end of June. According to their joint statement, "Amazon`s web site has improved; nonetheless, Amazon recognizes that it is not yet fully accessible. Amazon has indicated that it will complete the task within the extended period." Though is hosted on the Amazon platform, the effects of the Amazon agreement on the Target suit, if any, are unclear.

When contacted for this story, Target responded with the statement, "Target is committed to serving all of our guests and we believe that our web site is fully accessible and complies with all applicable laws. As our online business has evolved, we have made significant enhancements to improve the experience of our guests who use assistive technologies. Regardless of the outcome of this case, accessibility will remain a priority for Target and we will continue to implement new technologies to enhance the usability of our web site for all of our guests."

Dot-gov sites lead

Under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities, government web sites have tended to be more accessible than retail sites. Because of Section 508, "The designers and developers of government sites have been focused on accessibility for a longer time than other sites," explains Amy Schade, user experience specialist at online usability and accessibility consultants Nielsen Norman Group.

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