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NFB vs. Target in perspective

Filed in: accessibility, rights, tech, Web, Tue, Feb 14 2006 11:44 PT

Since the National Federation of the Blind sued Target Corp. for the inaccessibility of its Web site, many people have taken sides, vilifying Target and/or lionizing NFB in turn. I think it’s too early for that, if it’s necessary at all. In terms of US law, this was a suit that needed to happen, because the case law on Web accessibility is so far pretty thin. The most important thing to take away from this news is that the same case could be brought against dozens of comparable e-commerce sites, and all over problems that stop many users dead in their tracks, and yet could be fixed without affecting their visual design or functionality.

I’m hesitant to paint Target as the solitary enemy of users with disabilities. Let’s be clear: The accessibility of Target’s site is terrible. But in a short review I did of big-box store sites this morning, they’re not the worst around. In fact, they’re pretty much the middle of the range.

Take Please. From an accessibility standpoint, if Target is bad, Costco is a godless abomination. Never mind the distinct lack of alt text (which, by the way, is not the alpha and omega of Web accessibility): Costco’s homepage contains over a hundred subcategories in hidden drop-down boxes. But they’re not links. Noooooo. They’re table cells, with mouse events that fire JavaScript functions to load the relevant pages. Nice. The Costco site is not only inaccessible, its code is so poorly designed that its bloated size alone contributes to major usability problems for everyone.

Costco is only one example of many I found. But I’m picking on them in particular because their brick-and-mortar operation is refreshingly progressive. The company prides itself on a “workplace focused on ethics and obeying the law”, and has enormous signs at their front door stating that they strive to accommodate the needs of their customers in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

So, to what do we attribute the utter inaccessibility of many e-commerce sites: ignorance, miscommunication, or malice? I’ve seen all three in practice. Often, it doesn’t take the threat of a lawsuit to get site owners to come around; they merely need to understand the problems, and what they can do to solve them, in order of impact on the user.

But I’ve also seen cases where it’s a legal game of chicken: some companies refuse to comply with a legal mandate that they feel doesn’t clearly apply to them. They’re gambling that the cost of being found guilty of non-compliance is lower than that of conforming to a standard that may not apply to them. This strategy falls apart like a house of cards as soon as one of them is found liable. And it’s a tactic I find particularly odious when they’re consciously acting to keep users with disabilities out.

The fact is that the Web has afforded many people with disabilities new-found potential to buy and sell things, work, manage finances, find community, gather news, and access government services — all things able-bodied people take for granted. When people with disabilities received legal protection, it wasn’t given out of pity. It was given to protect their right to participate equally in society. Web designers and developers can enable that equal participation with every site they design, using modern coding principles. Or they can hide in a castle or a cave, clutching their legacy code, certain that those evil, litigious disabled people are out to get them.

So, which is it?

13 responses to “NFB vs. Target in perspective”

  1. Stephen Clay says:

    The elephant we’re ignoring here is that, likely, most of the output of these systems was hard-coded in the bad old days long before these companies bought them from web “developers” who merely repackage existing “solutions”. Unless a business happens to have a competent web accessibility expert on hand to evaluate the system before purchase, how are they going to know? These businesses need to insist that the development firm be liable for any accessibility suits resulting from their work!

  2. Well-balanced reflection, Matt. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Target wouldn’t be the worst mega-retailer website as far as usability and accessibility, but it’s nice to have in writing. I also like your last paragraph. What a wonderful thing that the web has allowed people with disabilities to participate in activities and commerce like the rest of us. I’m just aware that changes like this take time. Within that context, it’s easier to see the Target case as a stepping stone to even better activities and services for these people. I’m hoping the publicity encourages Target and other businesses/organizations to open their e-doors to a wider audience (instead of threatening them unto conformity).

    What has really bothered me about this whole thing is the “how dare you” mentality from the web community. At the very least, the mentality seems harsh (at most, it seems unconstitutional – but I won’t go down that highly-debated road again). I’d like to see more charitable activities coming from the community–instead of rash hostility–before we get Big Brother .gov in the ring.

    Just my 2c. Again, thanks for the write-up!

  3. Ton van Lankveld says:

    We are talking about proffesional sites.
    This is 2006. If you do not know about usabililty and accessibility by now, then you are no proffesional web designer.

    Sorry to be possitive about that.

  4. Willie says:

    I’ve only just discovered your site so I apologise if this is discussed elsewhere. I think the main problem is the understanding that people have of ‘accessibility’ or ‘disability’. Most of the money spent here in the UK on physical access is focussed on weelchiar users, with visually impaired people coming a close second. So a lot of companies have steep wheelchair ramps, maybe a bit of knobbly pavement (sidewalk) and some bright-coloured handles as well. However this may not suit (for example) the customer who walks using two sticks – the ramp may be too steep, and the knobbly pavement becomes an impedement.

    Similarly I think as companies here are slowly discovering web acccessibility it focuses mainly on text size. It seems like the advice they are getting is pretty much always from just the one angle.

    I don’t know Costco so I don’t know how well their store policy stands up. Companies definitely need to work on the accessibility of their websites for disabled users; it might go some way to paying back the money they are losing by barring actual store visits. After all, you always spend more if you can actually browse so why not let customers do that?

  5. Ashley says:

    I think big companies like Wal Mart Cosco Target are focused on the masses and not the disabled. It seems the only way to get these giant companies to change anything you have to sue them which I am glad the National Federation of the Blind did. My daughter is 50 and has a 20 dollar a week allownace and she has 3 web standards compliant websites. So when I hear about a company that makes millions of dollars not having one it makes me sick.

  6. Faruk Ates says:

    A-men! Excellent write-up, Matt.

    The big problem is getting both these companies and web developers and designers in general informed of these issues, and thusly convinced that they’ll start giving a damn. The latter in particular is a tough one, web designers/developers are so likely to not want to learn their trade all over again “just for a few disabled people”.

    Ben Buchanan said it beautifully on Molly’s site in a comment:

    would you still consider yourself an American if you lost your sight? Do you think you might be a bit upset to discover that businesses no longer felt you were important?

    Powerful argument.

  7. Jack Kennard says:

    If an architect forgets to add a wheelchair ramp or keeps a disabled person from using the facilities then it is very likely he will have to go in and refit or rebuild the premises on his own dime, (even if he has it in writing in the contract to disobey the law). I think the bigger issue is devices that can not access the site because it was poorly built. Why would anyone build a site limiting its use?

    As a web designer I have the same responsibility to obey the law and see that as many devices as possible can access the site. And if I do not do this correctly it may come down to me making the fixes on my time & dime. I will be the first to say I do not work on anything as large as Target or Costco, so it may never be an issue.

    I think the big question here is where will the chips fall on who is to blame for not following the law. Who do you think should pay for the site to be redone, the designer (in this case Amazon) or Target?

  8. Britney says:

    Everyone seems to forget about the little mena dn women and the disabled and do not care about them until soemone sues I dont care if the whole site is standards compliant the fact of the matter is they had to be sued before taking any serious action. Shame on them!

  9. Dennis says:

    I have been authoring (small) websites on and off for 10 years now, and my experience is that my clients have focused almost entirely on VISUAL presentation and cross-browser compatability. As they usually want to pay as little as possible, and get the site delivered in as little time as possible, accessibility becomes an afterthought.

    I cringe at the thought of being required to fix a site that I was paid a relatively low rate for on my own time and dime. Especially with all the competition coming from India, small web developers could easily be driven out of the market if accessibility is mandated by law and the liability is passed to a contracted developer.

    The ADA in the brink and mortar world applies equally to all businesses, no matter what their size. If this precedent is extended to the Web, then thousands of sites could be targets of predatory lawsuits designed to either make money or to drive the little guy out of the market. Don’t believe me? Google ADA lawsuit abuse sometime…

  10. Mag says:

    The hard equation is how to make a professional looking, PSD based website, and at the same time accessible, loads quickly, and functional. After buying a $63 nice looking template from a famous website, I decided to give it up, since discovering that as much pretty the design is, as much isn’t accessible. I hope that would help to avoid being sued by the NFB!

  11. Bruce Bailey says:

    It is great to have you arguing against the naive position that we don’t want laws affecting our code.

  12. Matt says:

    Aren’t you clever.

    The post you cite is perfectly compatible with this one. The point is that when you get people focused on the code and not the practice behind it, dumb things happen. If you only told Target that validation solved all their problems, you would get them nowhere in helping their accessibility problems. What’s broken on their site has very little to do with validity, and a whole lot to do with poor design.

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