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National Federation of the Blind files lawsuit against Target over discriminatory website November 7, 2006

Posted by C.A.R.D in Card, Citizens Against Racism and Discrimination, Disabled, Discriminate, Discrimination, Lawsuit, Race, Religion.
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Bruce Sexton is blind. He would like to shop on Target’s website, but says he can’t “read” it. He says the site lacks certain coding — found on many other websites — that would activate software to allow blind computer users to hear audio descriptions of what is on Internet pages.

Sexton, 24, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., and the National Federation of the Blind are suing Target on behalf of the 1.3 million blind people in the USA. The suit alleges that the giant retailer discriminates against the visually impaired by violating state and federal laws that protect the disabled.

The case draws national attention because it could have implications for virtually every retailer and business in the USA that operates a website. The case also fuels a wider debate starting to play out in courtrooms: whether anti-discrimination laws apply to the Internet.

It’s a key question in lawsuits across the nation. Craigslist.org, a popular advertising and networking website, is being sued in federal court in Chicago over allegations it has allowed ads for apartments and other housing that discriminate on the basis of race, sex, class, religion or familial status.

In court papers, Craigslist argues it is protected by the federal law that protects website owners from liability for content posted by the sites’ users. Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster has said it would be impossible for the site’s staff to review the 2 million free housing ads posted to the site each month. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Nov. 13.

In the Target case, the retailer contends that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and two California laws cited by Sexton apply only to its brick-and-mortar stores and do not extend to the Internet.

Last month, a federal judge disagreed with Target and rejected its bid to dismiss the suit. The case is proceeding toward trial, but no court date has been set.

The recent ruling was “very significant,” says Brian Blair, an Orlando lawyer who specializes in defending companies accused of violating laws that protect people with disabilities.

“For any business that has a physical location and a website, (the ruling) says you need to take reasonable steps to permit accessibility for the disabled,” says Blair, who is not involved in the dispute.

Blind or visually impaired people are able to use the Internet by installing “reader” software on their computers that searches for codes embedded on websites.

The codes enable text and graphics to be read or described audibly. The software also lets the blind navigate sites by using keystrokes instead of a mouse. Such functions have not been available to blind users of target.com, court papers say. Because Target’s website has required the use of a mouse, blind customers have been unable to make purchases on the site.

Target.com has “thousands of access barriers that make it difficult, if not impossible, for blind customers” to use the site, the suit says.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires stores, restaurants and other businesses to provide access to people with mental and physical disabilities. Since the Internet emerged, several lawsuits have focused on what site owners should be required to do to make their pages accessible to the disabled.

A lawsuit filed by the National Federation of the Blind against America Online in 1999 was dropped after AOL agreed to design new versions of its software to accommodate disabled users.

In 2002, Southwest Airlines fended off a similar challenge after a Miami judge found that federal disability law did not apply to the airline’s website because a “virtual” ticket counter is not a physical place. Southwest’s Brandy King says the airline opposed the lawsuit because it believed its website complied with federal disability law. Since then, she says, Southwest has added more coding to the site to help the blind.

Andrew Langer, manager of regulatory policy for the National Federation of Independent Business in Washington, said the cost of changing a website to accommodate disabled viewers often is not significant for large companies. He said companies often fight such lawsuits for philosophical reasons.

Businesses want to attract customers, he says, “but they want to do it on their own terms. You want to make decisions for your business without being coerced.”

Langer says that as retailers get more savvy about the Internet, “more are going to be making sure their websites are readily accessible to the blind,” he says.

Carolyn Brookter, a Target spokeswoman, declined to discuss the lawsuit. In an e-mailed statement, Brookter said the retailer is “making online enhancements that will benefit all our guests, including those with disabilities.” She added that “one of the things the enhancements will do is further increase the usability of the website for guests with sight disabilities.” She did not elaborate or say when the changes would be made.

Sexton says he visited Target’s site two weeks ago to see whether it had been improved. “They’ve made some minor changes,” he says. “But they haven’t made it an easy or enjoyable experience for me.”

Source USA Today

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