New Jersey lawyer focusing on special education law and employment law


Web Accessibility for the Blind and Visually Impaired Under the ADA

Unlike music and stand-up comedy, the internet is largely a visual art. Colors, photographs, videos. These are the things that make websites look attractive. But unless the photographs are captioned and the videos are narrated, these things are unimportant to someone who is completely blind.

If you are a sighted person and have a few minutes of spare time to participate in a research project, try this experiment. Remain seated in front of your computer. Keep your hand on the mouse or trackball. Now, close your eyes or put blindfolds on. While your eyes remain closed, move your mouse to the address bar and type in your favorite search engine. Once you think you’re in, type in a couple of keywords. Next, navigate to a computer folder, open up an audio app, and play your favorite music tracks.

Blindfolded female navigating her laptop.

It’s quite hard, isn’t it?

Really, we who are sighted must keep our eyes peeled in order to navigate the computer and the internet.

The blind and visually impaired depend on specially-designed software that allow them to navigate the internet. The software is sensitive, however, and some websites contain code that may disrupt the software’s ability to read the text out loud. Recently, the blind and visually impaired were involved in a lawsuit against Target because part of Target’s website was not accessible. In this blog post, I would like to provide a brief overview of how blind or visually impaired individuals surf websites, and what online accessibility means for the blind and visually impaired. In addition, I’d like to briefly discuss the impact the Target lawsuit may have had on other businesses with internet presence.

Many blind and visually impaired individual use the same computers and laptops that you and I use. For some blind people to actually surf the internet, however, a special software program is installed onto the computer. The screen reader program is designed to convert text into speech. One of these screen reader program is called JAWS. (Other screen readers are listed here.) Essentially, JAWS works like the very popular Dragon NaturallySpeak software, in which the user speaks and the computer types. JAWS converts text to speech quite well most of the time. However, if the website contains certain code, JAWS may not be able to convert text into speech. When this happens, the blind and visually impaired aren’t able to fully enjoy access to the entire website.

In more simplistic terms, it’s like having a five CD disc changer. The CD player plays the first four CDs beautifully. But the fifth CD is actually a Blu Ray DVD. The CD player cannot read it because Blu Ray discs contain certain code that an ordinary CD player cannot read or interpret.

When the federal government enacted the law prohibiting discrimination of individuals with disabilities (the “Americans with Disabilities Act”), the year was 1990. At that time, the Internet had hardly entered the mainstream and Google was not yet a verb. Thus, the law did not explicitly state that the blind or visually impaired could sue for website inaccessibility. However, creative lawyers have suggested that the law is drafted in a way that could be interpreted to include website accessibility.

Caption: Handicap logo on a laptop keyboard

In the Target case, Target’s website contained code that prevented the blind or visually impaired from being able to fully enjoy Target’s website. The blind and visually impaired argued that Target’s website discriminated against them and that federal law required Target to remove the code. (Note: For an insider’s view of the Target case, see Jim Thatcher’s blog post, Accessibility, Law, and Mr. Thatcher served as an expert witness in this case.)

The lawsuit raised a very interesting question: is a website a place of public accommodation? The Americans with Disabilities Act says that places of public accommodation include hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, bus stations, and other facilities where the public is invited. The law says that these places of public accommodations must not discriminate against individuals with disabilities. Additionally, the law requires that individuals with disabilities must be given equal access to the facilities as well as equal enjoyment of the goods and services provided by the establishment. For example, if a blind or visually impaired person visits a restaurant and there is no menu printed in Braille, then a waiter or waitress would be required to read aloud each dish if requested.

It appears that like hotels and other public facilities where the public is invited, a website could be seen as an open space where the public is invited.

Unfortunately, the Target court never got an opportunity to answer the question whether a website is a place of public accommodation. Target agreed to a $6 million settlement and the case was closed. The settlement was probably a good move on Target’s part since there is a split among the courts whether the internet was a place of public accommodation. The 3rd Circuit and 11th Circuit courts, for example, held that the internet is not a place of public accommodation, but the 1st Circuit and 7th Circuit courts suggested that it may be. It was really anyone’s guess just how the Target case would have been decided. Of course, the desire to preserve its public image was another reason why Target chose to settle.

In any event, the Target case raised awareness about the problems that the blind and visually impaired people have when accessing websites. Businesses with websites paid very close attention to the Target case and some have made changes to their website in order to prevent litigation–but some businesses may not have made any changes at all. While some bloggers were quite annoyed with the Target case, many website designers agree that it is simply good practice to ensure website accessibility because it can only help drive more traffic to the website, build a larger customer base, and generate more revenue. As blogger Roger Johansson writes, “[R]equiring 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.” Two excellent sources of information for designing accessible websites are: the Web Accessibility Initiative and The Great Accessibility Blog Roundup.

Like Target, businesses and bloggers alike should be mindful of people with disabilities who surf the web. Just as a rock star can never have too many fans, so too, no business can have too many customers and no blogger can have too many readers. Let’s make the most of technology and share it with as many people as possible!

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