Last Thursday, September 7th, a federal judge ruled that a class action lawsuit brought on by the National Federation of the Blind against Target Corporation could commence. (Additional coverage available here and here.) The lawsuit alleges that Target’s web site is inaccessible to people with impaired vision. Although the lawyers for Target tried to get the case dismissed arguing that the Americans with Disabilities Act and state laws do not apply to its web site, the judge ruled that the laws protecting disabled persons not only apply to Target’s web site but also to all other services offered by the company.
This ruling is a clear wake-up call for all web and mobile-based services regardless of the outcome of the trial – just going to trial is a huge cost. New web design and development must take accessibility into account, and existing services should perform audits to identify and correct accessibility issues. The case against Target Corporation is not an isolated incident; it is just the tip of the iceberg of a larger industry-wide problem. (Similar lawsuits over web accessibility for the blind were filed against Southwest and American Airlines in 2002.) Undoubtedly, the company was the target (no pun intended) of this disability lawsuit due to its size and high profile, but this certainly does not rule out smaller internet and mobile-based services. Just as accessibility laws apply equally to large corporations and your local, tiny, family-owned restaurant, so too the Americans with Disabilities Act and other state, local, and federal disability laws apply to web properties of all sizes.
Alright, but where to start?
The first thing to do is to get familiar with accessibility on the web, and what that means for your web site.
Accessibility for the web means that anyone, notwithstanding ability, can complete the same set of tasks on your internet or mobile-based service as any other user. For example, users that are visually impaired must be able to buy items, from search to payment, on ecommerce web sites just as their non-impaired counterparts. Most critically, nowhere in the user task flow (of any task) for impaired users can there be an impasse.
There are a number of good resources that address the technical aspects of making web sites accessible to disabled users. The most comprehensive and authoritative is the Web Accessibility Initiative sitelet on the W3C web site that contains a great introduction to web accessibility. IBM’s Human Ability and Accessibility also has a handy web accessibility checklist for developers.
It is important to note that accessibility extends far beyond technical implementation, such as including ALT attributes for all images. In fact, the interaction design and user interface for your web or mobile-based service can greatly aid disabled users. Seemingly unimportant web design paradigms such as putting field titles and directions before form fields can greatly help the usability of your web site for disabled users.
Although this ruling may be an annoyance to some, it is ultimately a blessing in disguise for the greater internet industry because most of the improvements that make a web site more accessible to the disabled, also make it significantly more usable for all users. This is a great opportunity for your company to take the lead in this and profit because improved accessibility and usability also leads to greater customer conversion and retention through optimized user experience.