Update on the Target accessibility lawsuit

In March last year I posted Target sued for refusing to make their website accessible, where I talked about the USA-based retail chain being sued by the US National Federation of the Blind. The reason for the lawsuit was that Target refused to, among other things, put alt text on images and make the site usable without a mouse.

Since then there has not been a lot of news about the case, at least not that I am aware of. I had started thinking that nothing would come out of it, and that Target would get away with having an inaccessible website (and keep living in the past when it comes to Web development practices). But recent news indicates that it’s not over yet.

The judge in the case has now given the lawsuit class-action status, which, if I understand it correctly, means that any blind person in the USA who has unsuccessfully tried to use target.com can become a plaintiff in the suit against Target. Good news I think. If a business can’t be bothered to make their website accessible, especially after repeatedly being made aware of the problems and given plenty of time to make adjustments, it should cost them. A lot.

Over the last week plenty of articles about this lawsuit have been posted on various sites. Reading the comments on some of them (mostly those posted on sites whose audience does not primarily consist of standards-aware web developers) is… how shall I put it… entertaining. No, frustrating. Some people have very strange and misinformed opinions on how horribly limiting and even impossible it apparently is to build accessible websites.

For the record, requiring websites to be accessible does not make building them too expensive or create an artificial barrier to entry. Neither does it mean websites have to be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator or that you cannot use images, Flash, JavaScript, or Ajax.

What it does mean is that people who design and program websites need to be aware of modern best practices in web design and development. Which we all should anyway, since it’s part of our job.

More reading:

Posted on October 8, 2007 in Accessibility, Web Standards

Comments

  1. October 8, 2007 by Adam

    Have you seen the average American govt website - especially at the local/city level?

    I don’t see how any retailer can be successfully sued, while govt websites which provide truly necessary services stay stuck in 1996.

    Check this one out. Image maps for navigation, no alt text, illegible text, etc. Granted, it is a small city website, but still.

    Even though this will ultimately encourage website accessibility in the US, I am so tired of the sue-happy culture here. Once the plaintiff and her lawyers get paid, expect thousands more lawsuits like this. Expect every retailer, down to the Mom and Pop shops whose owners created their simple little website in Dreamweaver, to get sued.

    Grrr…. at least our services will be in demand, I guess.

  2. October 8, 2007 by Adam

    Oops - meant to say his/her lawyers. My bad.

  3. Great article, I can mirror exactly what you said here:

    “Reading the comments on some of them (mostly those posted on sites whose audience does not primarily consist of standards-aware web developers) is… how shall I put it… entertaining. No, frustrating.”

    as I told some colleagues and they basically laughed it off saying it was dumb and trivial. I find more and more that that sort of ignorance irritates the hell out of me.

  4. I have to agree with Adam. Government web sites are supposed to comply with Section 508 guidelines and most don’t, so how can a government entity allow a private firm to be sued for things itself doesn’t even uphold?

    Second, while I agree that Target should pay for their…indiscretions, should it be in the form of a law suit? Why not leave it out of the court and let the market deal with it? If enough people care that target doesn’t care about blink people, then they can stop shopping there and if that affects Target’s bottom line, they’ll fix it fast.

  5. How can anyone possibly think that a third party has the right to me what to put on my website, let alone the style I use to display the content.

    I have to say I wonder why Target wouldn’t make their site content compliant for business reasons but perhaps its not worth it.

    If the site doesn’t do what you want, go elsewhere. Surely there are other places to buy cheap plastic crap besides Target.com???

  6. October 8, 2007 by Josh

    What if Target didn’t have a website at all? Could I sue them? I mean, isn’t it might right as a U.S. citizen to shop online?

    Last time I checked there aren’t any laws on what technology I have to employ as I develop a website.

    If this wins, chalk another win up for our overly litigious society.

  7. So you expect that court order will increase competence of web builders? Somhow I very much doubt it.

  8. October 8, 2007 by Bernardo

    I have to agree with Josh. This doesn’t make sense in my head. Target should make their site accessible to attract more customers BUT at the same time they are not required by law to do so.

    I bet the blind ppl association would have much success if they would simply buy from someone else. If business ppl at Target are not blind, they will clearly see that “oh, I’m losing money cause my website is not accessible”. That’s much more convicing to a corporation than a lawsuit, in my opinion.

  9. October 8, 2007 by Daniel Coble

    The general question of the relative prevalence of litigation in the US or other societies aside, I find it disheartening that so many of the commenters don’t seem to be aware of the role that lawsuits have played in social change in the United States. Brown vs. Board of Education, anyone? Lawsuits typically both precede and enforce civil rights legislation, and without them we would likely not have wheelchair ramps on our buildings and many other things that were once considered superfluous but are, like Web accessibility, about basic human rights, not about how much ‘plastic crap’ one can buy.

  10. October 8, 2007 by Bernardo

    Hi Daniel

    I’m really not aware of this type of changes in your society or in mine. How long does that take? Between a lawsuit and the final civil rights legislation? That would be about 20 years here where I live. Third world baby, all the way. Money is faster. =)

  11. October 9, 2007 by Adam

    Daniel,

    If the main goal is to change society for the better, why not go after the government (aka lawmakers) instead of a single retailer? If Target is breaking the law by having a website that is not easily accessible to blind users, then so are a great number of govt offices. Do you agree that the government needs to follow the law? (Assuming the court agrees that Target is unfairly discriminating against blind users)

    Also, I would argue that the negative effects of our lawsuit-happy society FAR outweigh the positives.

  12. @Bernado: with apologies to Josh, he’s talking nonsense. Disabled people should have access to the same services as everyone else. If economic forces made this happen, that would be great, but the state of the Target web site demonstrates that they don’t.

    If you offer a service to the public, you should take reasonable steps to make it accessible to people with disabilities. If you disagree with that statement, fair enough. But it’s the law in the UK, and if the NFB win, I guess it’s the law in the US too.

    @Rimantas: a court order would make Target hire competent web developers. If everyone started hiring competent web developers (and asking them to make accessible things), then developers would up-skill. So, yeah, kinda.

  13. @C Weber and Josh

    The government can’t tell you what to do with your website.

    However, if you want to sell merchandise from a US-based business to US citizens, they do get to tell you how you can do that under US tax and commerce law. The fact that the sale is taking place on a website is irrelevant. This is a good thing.

    All Target would have to do to prevent lawsuits like this one would be to stop selling things on their website.

  14. I really don’t see this lawsuit as more than yet another one of those useless lawsuits that plague the American legal system. If a company doesn’t want to make their website accessible, so be it. They’ll lose the disabled customers — that’s their choice to limit their customer base.

    Why don’t the blind customers just take their business to another company? If Target doesn’t offer the appropriate website for them, then they don’t get their money. Simple as that. Don’t need yet another lawsuit.

    And, of course, what is this supposed to do? Hang a legal block over companies’ heads to force them to make their sites accessible? IMO that should be their right and decision whether they should hire a competent designer who is aware of standards and accessibility, and whether or not they want the business of the less-fortunate.

    To summarize, useless lawsuit.

  15. I have to assume that the 14 commenters above me didn’t read any of those articles. It’s the same questions and arguments that have been posed, discussed, and refuted over the past week. To those who say that blind people should just take their business elsewhere: Target, like many other major retailers with online divisions, often have online-only specials which cannot be found in any of their brick-and-mortar stores. In order for this practice not to be discriminatory to blind users, they must either discontinue any online deals or make their website accessible. Target might just be a bunch of cheap plastic wares but the blind have a right to plastic wares too. Your “holier-than-thou” rejection of those plastic wares and your flaunting of the ability to shop around for competing plastic wares is very unfair to those blind users who might not be as well off as you.

  16. Nicely written, Roger.

    I, too, completely agree with Adam’s observation of the general condition of US Government web sites. Some do not not even come close to complying with their own legal requirements. It’s a bit of a travesty.

    In one such case I was actually compelled to contact one agency [who shall remain nameless] who had an inaccessible web site. The web site was about the Section 508 guidelines and compliance, [but it was not the Section 508 site]. They actually had embedded image navigation with no alt text if you can believe that.

    With another concerned person, contact was initiated. To the credit of this particular government site’s webmaster, the problem was addressed that same day and we were thanked for pointing out the oversight.

    It isn’t the first time I’ve contacted a government site to ask them to fix something. It doesn’t always work out so well. One government agency took a year to get to their fix, and they still didn’t do it right.

  17. October 9, 2007 by Jane

    Hah, funny. I sort of blew up in the comments on some of those articles (you left a few other sites out as well)..I gave up because there was no end to the idiocy. Like the people who can’t even comprehend how blind people use computers, or the ones that make snide remarks about blind people driving now (!), and that all websites have to be all text or something ridiculous.

    That being said, I just want to point out that Target is a corporation and not part of the government or something. Although I don’t remember the details of any of this anymore, having given up on reading them when it first hit the internet, there’s only so much you can do to force private businesses, corporations and individuals to do something like this. The better idea would be to boycott them, support other more accessible retailers, and do something about next-generation web development tools and languages to increase awareness of accessibility. Or something along those lines. This is borderline excessively litigious. There isn’t much anyone can do here (except Target doing the right thing) otherwise. I think the whole deal that Amazon had earlier this year with the NFB was more fruitful and appealing for both sides than a class-action lawsuit.

  18. I think too many narrow-mined people focus upon the fact it was a blind person that complained about the inaccessibly of the website. There are more than just blind people whom have problems accessing information on inaccessible websites like target’s.

    Approximately 1 in 10 people have some form of disability so it is hardly a niche group they would be helping if they rectified their “evil ways” of building inaccessible websites.

  19. I’m surprised the “best company ever” would be so lazy about their website. They really do put a LOT of effort into the store experience for their guests (Trivial Fact #1: Target does not have “customers”), especially when compared to other stores like Wal-Mart.

    I was interested in finding an internship with Target.com, but looking at the code they produce, it gives an (unfortunately) different impression from a store experience. I may reconsider if they change. But then again, they may be looking for accessibility-aware web folks right now. ;)

  20. October 9, 2007 by Dr Livingston

    Good news I think.

    But is it? I am a developer, not a designer but I still can appreciate that we need to be accessible however we don’t need it rammed down our throats.

    Not like this anyways, via a law suit. What are you going to do next? Sue the next site that isn’t suitable for someone who is impaired?

    The question I have is where do you stop? Do you stop? It’s a -beep- witch hunt in that regards. I would have thought that we have gone passed that stage in our evolution.

    Seams not.

    A lot.

    No doubt it will but will it be justified at the end of the day? I don’t think so, because in all reality it’ll make little impact if any on the industry.

    Think about it this way; It’s the customer who will end up having to pay for it through increased prices, job loses, etc.

    So who wins? Instead of being one to throw web standards, and accessibility all over the place, try to imagine that the bigger effect will be on business…

    And this statement is coming from a web developer, so if I can see the bigger picture, why not you? I’ve been following your blog for a year now, and I understand you are coming from but also take it from the other point of view before you start…

  21. October 9, 2007 by Darren Kopp

    Better make sure that you put push buttons on every product to tell you what it is or make sure that the product name is in brail on every product.

    Honestly, the web is a very visual medium. It should not be enforced that you HAVE to use alt tags. If they can’t use the website, then they will ultimately go somewhere else.

    Ultimately it is just target losing sales. And if they are that concerned about it and if it is a big enough loss then Target would probably correct it.

  22. @Montoya:

    Right on. And while we’re at it, I say we start a class action lawsuit against movie theaters. Around here, they offer special deals that are only available to—get this—people over 65 years old. One theater here even gives free tickets to disabled people! Such blatant discrimination is sickening. A young able-bodied guy like me can’t get the same deal at any other movie theater. Sure, they might just be a bunch of cheap tickets to see crummy movies, but I have a right to cheap tickets too! Those seniors’ and disabled folks’ flaunting of their ability to get cheap movie tickets is very unfair to people like me who might not be as well off as them.

    It may require surgery to get my tongue all the way back out of my cheek, and somebody in those dozen articles I didn’t read probably said it already, but forgive me, I thought it was funny anyhow. “So sue me!” Er…

  23. October 9, 2007 by James Golden

    I’m actually stunned at the tone some of the readership here is taking on this. I really thought that there would be a more positive thread of comments regarding this topic.

    In defense of the general public, every building you walk into is governed by code (no pun intended) to ensure accessibility to all. Why is everyone surprised that a retail website (or any website for that matter) is not expected to be governed the same? We should have a little empathy.

    I’m not pulling for a set of laws to handle this, but at a minimum a site owner should disclaim it openly that they are disregarding disabled visitors. I don’t think Target took this simple precaution.

    To the developers here: This case is good for our industry, we should embrace it and even go as far as to “sell it” - why not? Let’s be real, we all need to earn a living.

    The bottom line is that if you truly have a passion for the profession you’re in, you already know accessible websites make sense. Tim Berners-Lee in fact meant it to be this way from day one.

  24. October 9, 2007 by traxxas

    The majority of these comments and comments about this elsewhere all suffer from people not knowing even the very basic details of this suit.

    My website I can do what I want.

    If you run a business that sells products or services with a license in California then the state has laws which say you cannot use arbitrary and intentional discrimination on the basis of personal characteristics. California Unruh Civil Rights Act and the California Disabled Persons Act.

    This is just sue happy people looking for money.

    The suit charges that Target failed and refused to make its Web site accessible to the blind. Target was contacted about the problems before the suit and told the litigants they were not going to change anything.

  25. October 9, 2007 by helaene

    there aren’t any alt tags in the brick and mortar stores…

    i’ve never seen (or felt) braille on a price tag or an item’s washing instructions - have you?

    what makes a website any different?

    with all respect to the blind, i don’t think that this is an issue for a courtroom. target should provide an accessible website, but it is their choice as a commercial outlet to do so.

  26. October 9, 2007 by Marcello

    Reading some of the above comments, I’m at a loss to understand what all the fuss is about. Heck, I test to make sure that my websites work on Safari for the Mac, which is only about 2% of the audience. Why wouldn’t I also want my sites to be accessible to the visually impaired, which is a substantially larger audience?

    Building accessible websites just seems like common sense to me. But maybe it’s not all that common after all…

  27. Adam and Rob, Section 508 is not for any government in the U.S.—it only applies to any Federal web site or federally-funded web site (fully or partially funded). By the way, Section 508 is short for “1998 Amendment to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act”.

  28. October 10, 2007 by Stevie D

    Honestly, the web is a very visual medium. It should not be enforced that you HAVE to use alt tags. If they can’t use the website, then they will ultimately go somewhere else.

    The web is often perceived in a visual way, but that is an artefact of our computers, it is not inherent within it.

    This site, for example. Yes, most people reading it will pass the text from the site to their brain via their eyes. But there’s no reason why they have to - it would make just as much sense if it was read out loud or passed via Braille. The content is the same whether the user has his hand on a mouse or the keyboard, or any other navigation aid.

    Yes, there are a tiny minority of web pages that genuinely are primarily visual, and where the page can’t intelligbly be rendered in a non-visual system. But, by the same token, that doesn’t mean they can’t be navigable by keyboard-users, or legible to people who need the text enlarged, and so on.

    Unfortunately, we have seen - over years, decades - that governments do have to get involved, that we do have to set and enforce laws to outlaw discrimination. That is true whether the discrimination is deliberate or simply lazy. The weight of legislation in the UK that affords equal opportunities to people in all sorts of different circumstances would sink a battleship. Much of it is now ingrained into social conscience, but the only way it gets there is by being forced through as law to start with.

  29. October 10, 2007 by Stevie D

    This is just sue happy people looking for money.

    Unfortunately that’s the way the US legal system is designed.

    In the UK, companies breaking the law can be fined - but that is a fine, it is not paid to the complainant. People can sue for damages, but there is no punitive element. That doesn’t mean that the companies get off scot-free, far from it, but there is no accusation of the complainant being “sue-happy”.

  30. I got to thinking about this as I was reading comments.

    As a web developer I try to allow for screen readers in my design by using both alt and title tags on images.

    BUT I do not think companies should be in a position to be sued anymore than a store that displayes a poster advertisement in the window needs to have Brail on it…

  31. A few brief notes on the essence of this lawsuit, which makes Target (and some Internet retailers) uniquely responsible for Web accessibility according to lawyers representing the plaintiff(s).

    1.) Target was contacted and was asked politely to change very specific information on the site so that it could be accessible. The majority of this complaint centered around image maps and alt tags. It really was that simple.

    2.) Having Web sales specials not in stores has nothing to do with this lawsuit. The argument presented by some legal groups states that retailers who offer Web services that compliment brick-and-mortar store services that are accessible, should also make those Web services accessible. Think pharmacy or checkout. This is also the same reason that retailers who are strictly Internet based (no brick-and-mortar storefront) will likely not be affected at all by the backlash from the lawsuit.

    3.) Target has not lost this lawsuit. This is a long a way from being “done” - as Roger pointed out, this simply places the case under class action status.

  32. There is a strong precedent for this kind of action being taken, by and on the behalf of persons with disabilities within the US.

    The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. This law makes it illegal for businesses that are open to the public within the US to be built in a way that makes them inaccessible to persons with disabilities. When is the last time you visited a Target with a steep staircase in front and no wheelchair ramp?

    It makes no sense to say that websites should be allowed to follow a completely different set of rules and block access to disabled people due to the extra cost involved, like some commenters have suggested.

    After the up-front investment of making your site (or your store) accessible, maintenance of this accessibility is relatively inexpensive.

  33. This reminds me of a conversation I had last year with some co-workers when we were redesigning a major sports marketing site. When I brought up accessibility issues, I was greeted by, “Do blind people really buy sporting goods?” In his defense, it was an honest question and he was thinking solely in terms of footballs, golf clubs, etc. He never even considered sweat pants, sneakers, winter gloves, North Face jackets, etc.

    To me, the Target lawsuit isn’t about forcing a corporation to respond to a frivolous lawsuit - it’s about someone bringing up a good point about how a segment is being denied access to content and being rebuffed repeatedly. As far as I know, there was never a monetary value placed on this lawsuit - i.e. no inherent payoff for the person who brought the suit (although, as always, the lawyers will get paid big-time). This is about a principle, and a valid one at that.

    To build a site that would be accessible isn’t that much harder than building one that isn’t. It takes a bit more planning and more keystrokes, but using principles like Progressive Enhancement, it’s possible to ensure that the base markup of the site still allows users to get to content AND accomplish all of their tasks. Then feel free to add style and other functionality for more enabled/tech-savvy users on top of that.

    As the comment above said, if they put up a stairway that made it impossible for someone in a wheelchair to get to their store, would you tell them - “fine, just go someplace else, then”? I think not. By Target being held accountable, it’s about making them consider the needs of all of their audience and not knowingly excluding a subset because they don’t want to bother coding their site correctly.

  34. I love what you have written Roger, I did write on this topic - specifically for Singapore.

    I know accessibility is a sore topic among designers as well as clients - the only way I could think of to convince them is that it would add to their “SEO” :)

    It is obvious that from the comments here accessibility is not something people consider as vital for any website. Just like we have ramps and lifts in the shopping centres for the disabled (by law in singapore at least), we need to have accessibility for websites implemented by law. It is not that difficult.

  35. First off I have to say that practicing accessibility is a good thing. But, what is the difference in this and a site saying “you must have javascript enabled”, or “Flash 9 is required” and my browser doesn’t support that? I think it should be common courtesy to make websites accessible, but on that same note its my own loss if its not.

    If anything I would buy from another store who appreciates my business, I’m sure someone else sells most products Target does. This reminds me of a lawsuit of someone suing a fast food restaurant for making them obese. They’re not making you go there and risk your health, they’re simply offering you a product, take it or leave it.. Only potential problem I see is if they claim that it is accessible when it clearly isn’t after they’ve mislead you making the sell.

  36. In their Terms and Conditions (which can easily be read by a screen reader) it states:

    “UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES, SHALL THE TARGET CORPORATION BUSINESSES OR ANY OF THEIR EMPLOYEES, DIRECTORS, OFFICERS, AGENTS, VENDORS OR SUPPLIERS BE LIABLE FOR ANY DIRECT OR INDIRECT LOSSES OR DAMAGES ARISING OUT OF OR IN CONNECTION WITH THE USE OF OR INABILITY TO USE THIS WEBSITE.”

    Don’t know if this existed before or after the lawsuit, but that should be enough to stand.

  37. @ Mark Penix

    That legal statement is probably as binding as the ‘Stay back 200 ft - not responsible for broken windshields’ sticker on the back of 18-wheelers.

    If they aren’t taking care of their mudflaps, any rocks flying up from behind them IS their responsibility.

    You can’t just declare yourself above the law and expect it to stand in court.

  38. October 19, 2007 by Jen Vogh

    Well, I was checking out a totally unrelated article on current menu states and CSS (as I am redoing a website from scratch) saw this article, went and got the info on accessibility http://www.w3.org/WAI/ so that I can make my client’s website accessible - I would say that this lawsuit is working out just fine - raising awareness and creating an impetus to responsible behavior…

  39. October 22, 2007 by Angel

    Can someone please show me where in the constitution it states that all web sites must be accessible to all people? I think this is absolutely ridiculous. Are we so affluent in this country that we must complain about the slightest inconvenience.

    While were at it why don’t blind people sue for the right to drive, I mean after all they should be able to drive as well. Or how about braille at every drive through in America? While they are at it. Why not sue because we have the technology to embed a flash player and have a spoken transcript of this site for all blind people to listen to. After all they are blind not deaf. If they are claiming that they have the same rights as everyone else then lets be consistent here. Lets bring it all out on the table while were at it. Lets tax people that can see , after all its not fair.

    Better yet lets bring race into this argument, that should really spark things up with the ACLU , as a spanish american I feel discriminated that this site isn’t in spanish for my fellow latinos. I think im going to file a class action lawsuit because I feel its my God ( wait can I even say God without a lawsuit? ) given right to be able to read this site in my native language.

    This whole argument is absurdity at its best. I love when .03 percent of the population gets to dictate what everyone else does.

    For business reasons target should consider making target.com accessible to as many people as possible. But forcing them to by a class action lawsuit is frivolous and just a blatant abuse of the legal system. It would be easier to shop elsewhere.

    Where does it end?

  40. @Angel: thank you. I was wondering when the “what next, blind people driving?” comment would arrive :-)

    A number of the people are making the same comment, repeatedly, basically “it’s target’s website, it shouldn’t be up to the govt to tell them what it must do”.

    That’s a political/world view opinion, one I disagree with, but I can accept that people have a right to that opinion. I don’t mind that.

    What I object to is the fact that people (here, there and everywhere) keep chiming in with the same comments - “this is just sue happy people looking for money”, “what next, suing xxxx because yyyy?” and so on, when most of these points have already been countered. At least have the decency to come up with a new idea…

    The point is, it’s not illegal to produce this site in English. And I don’t imagine English is Roger’s first language either (but he’s just showing off, ‘cos he probably can write in more languages than I could name) Nor, as a site presumably hosted in Sweden would I imagine you could sue it under US law.

    Whereas it may be illegal (depending on who you are, where you are, and what you do) to have an inaccessible website. That’s what the lawsuit is about - whether or not Target broke the law.

    Not about what should be the law: it’s about what is the law.

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