"Reaction [beta]"

NFB claims may be off-Target 10 Sep 2006

Last Wednesday, a federal judge ruled that a lawsuit pertaining to the apparent inaccessibility of Target.com can move forward. But is this the "victory for human rights" that some people would have you beleive?

The lawsuit had been filed as a class action by the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) on behalf of all blind Americans who, it is alleged, are being prevented from accessing Target's products online. The plaintiffs in the case - the NFB, the NFB of California and blind college student Bruce "BJ" Sexton - claim that Target's website is inaccessible to the blind and in violation of federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities (most notably, the Americans with Disabilities Act).

Target had filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that applying California statutes to its website, which is available to consumers nationwide, would violate the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution. Crucially, the retailer also claimed that the ADA doesn't apply to websites because - unlike high-street stores - they aren't "physical places of public accommodation".

Currently, the ADA lists 12 specific "places of public accommodation" that must be fully accessible to disabled people, ranging from theatres and restaurants to private schools and day care centres. But all are physical locations. The Act makes no mention whatsoever of virtual locations. As a result, a convenient "loophole" exists, providing many US businesses with little incentive to make their websites accessible. Some disability rights groups have lobbied Congress to modify the ADA to explicitly cover the internet, but the law has yet to be changed.

Media commentators, disability rights groups and user experience companies are therefore very excited about the NFB vs. Target ruling, interpreting it as the first case in which a judge has ruled that the ADA covers the online realm. According to them, the ruling sets a precedent establishing that retailers must now make their websites accessible to the blind if they are to meet the stipulations of the ADA. Yet it seems that they could be mistaken.

Accessibility guru, Joe Clark, warns that "All [the ruling] means is that the motion to dismiss the case was denied. NFB et al. have not won the case. In fact, based on details published in the ruling, they might lose...The interim ruling did not state that the ADA applies to Web sites. The judge, on most counts, refused to limit ADA application to physical stores. Web sites were not definitively ruled in."

Sources: Joe Clark, Computer World and ars technica.

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