Federal court ruling sets precendent websites must be accessible to the blind

Federal judge sustains discrimination claims against Target; precedent establishes that retailers must make their websites accessible to the blind under the ADA
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Berkeley, CA: A federal district court judge ruled yesterday that a retailer may be sued if its website is inaccessible to the blind. The ruling was issued in a case brought by the National Federation of the Blind against Target Corp. (Northern District of California Case No. C 06-01802 MHP) The suit charges that Target's website (Target) is inaccessible to the blind, and therefore violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. (ADA), the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, and the California Disabled Persons Act. Target asked the court to dismiss the action by arguing that no law requires Target to make its website accessible. The Court denied Target's motion to dismiss and held that the federal and state civil rights laws do apply to a website such as target.com.

The suit, NFB v. Target, was filed as a class action on behalf of all blind Americans who are being denied access to target.com. The named plaintiffs are the NFB, the NFB of California, and a blind college student, Bruce “BJ” Sexton.

The plaintiffs are represented by Disability Rights Advocates (Disability Rights Advocates), a Berkeley-based non-profit law firm that specializes in high-impact cases on behalf of people with disabilities; Brown, Goldstein & Levy (Brown, Goldstein & Levy), a leading civil rights law firm in Baltimore, Maryland; and Schneider & Wallace (Schneider & Wallace), a national plaintiff's class action and civil rights law firm based in San Francisco, CA.

The court held: “the ‘ordinary meaning' of the ADA's prohibition against discrimination in the enjoyment of goods, services, facilities or privileges, is that whatever goods or services the place provides, it cannot discriminate on the basis of disability in providing enjoyment of those goods and services.” The court thus rejected Target's argument that only its physical store locations were covered by the civil rights laws, ruling instead that all services provided by Target, including its Web site, must be accessible to persons with disabilities.

“This ruling is a great victory for blind people throughout the country,” said NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer. “We are pleased that the court recognized that the blind are entitled to equal access to retail websites.”

Dr. Maurer explained that blind persons access websites by using keyboards in conjunction with screen-reading software, which vocalizes visual information on a computer screen. Target's website contains significant access barriers that prevent blind customers from browsing among 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 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 and other graphical features, preventing blind users from navigating and making use of all of the functions of the website. And because the website requires the use of a mouse to complete a transaction, blind Target customers are unable to make purchases on target.com independently.

The plaintiffs originally filed the complaint in Alameda superior court on February 7, 2006. The case was removed to federal district court and assigned to Judge Marilyn Hall Patel. Target responded to the suit by filing a motion to dismiss the case, which argued in part that no civil rights laws apply to the Internet.

“We tried to convince Target that it should do the right thing and make its website accessible through negotiations,” said Dr. Maurer. “It is unfortunate that Target took the position that it does not have to take the rights of the blind into account. The ruling in this case puts Target and other companies on notice that the blind cannot be treated like second class citizens on the Internet or in any other sphere.”

Explaining the ramification of the ruling, Mazen M. Basrawi, Equal Justice Works Fellow at Disability Rights Advocates, noted that: “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.”

“I hope that I can soon shop online at Target.com just like anyone else,” said UC Berkeley student BJ Sexton, who is a named plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I believe that millions of blind people like me can use the Internet just as easily as do the sighted, if websites are accessible.”

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About the National Federation of the Blind

With more than 50,000 members, the National Federation of the Blind is the largest and most influential membership organization of blind people in the United States. The NFB improves blind people's lives through advocacy, education, research, technology, and programs encouraging independence and self-confidence. It is the leading force in the blindness field today and the voice of the nation's blind. In January 2004 the NFB opened the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, the first research and training center in the United States for the blind led by the blind.

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