[Irl-dean] Blind Web surfers sue for accessibility

Paul Walsh, Segala paul at segala.com
Wed Oct 25 18:41:31 IST 2006

I've provided the copy below in case the site is inaccessible.

NEW YORK - "Links list dialogue." "Links list view." "Your Account, Two of
164." This is what the Internet sounds like to Chris Danielsen. Danielsen is
blind. He's using a software program called Jaws that converts the text on a
Web page into a computerized voice that comes out through a speaker,
allowing him to surf the Web using keyboard commands instead of a mouse, the
same way lots of blind people use the Internet.
In this case, his computer is listing all the Web links on the page he's on
and telling him that the highlighted link his cursor is on now will take him
to the "Your Account" section on Wal-Mart's Web site.
Danielsen, who writes a blog called "The Voice of the Nation's Blind" for
the National Federation of the Blind, says accessing the Internet has been a
"huge boon" for blind people. It's allowed them to accomplish a great number
of tasks on their own that would otherwise present difficulties or require
the help of a sighted person, such as banking, buying plane tickets and
shopping for things like groceries and music.
But like any evolving technology, accessing the Internet has hardly been a
smooth ride for the blind. Some sites can be difficult to navigate,
particularly if they contain relatively few text links and rely more on
graphics and other visual elements that screen-reading software such as Jaws
can't interpret.
That's why the NFB, an organization that represents blind people, is suing
Target Corp., saying that its Web site is inaccessible to blind Internet
Last month a federal judge in California allowed the NFB's case to proceed,
rejecting Target's argument that its Web site wasn't subject to the
Americans With Disabilities Act, a 1990 law that requires retailers and
other public places to make accommodations for people with disabilities.
Target argued that the law only covered physical spaces.
The case, which is entering a pretrial phase called discovery in U.S.
District Court for the Northern District of California, could set an
important precedent for applying federal accessibility law to the Internet.
Target said in a statement that its Web site was "committed to providing an
online experience that is accessible to all of our guests. Despite the
lawsuit brought forward by the National Federation of the Blind, we have
always and will continue to implement new technologies to our Web site."
John Pare, a spokesman for the NFB, said most Web sites are far easier to
navigate than Target's. In a demonstration of screen-reading software for
The Associated Press, Danielsen showed that many links on Target's side were
unintelligible to the Jaws software, and that the final purchase required
the use of a mouse, something even the most sophisticated blind Web surfer
would have trouble with. However, he was able to navigate other sites and
purchased a CD from Amazon.
Jaws, made by Freedom Scientific, is a popular kind of screen-reading
software, but there are others, including Window-Eyes, made by GW Micro, and
Hal, made by Dolphin Computer Access.
Many Web sites already have made major progress in becoming accessible to
the blind, and some, such as those run by the government, are required to do
so by law.
Yet surfing the Internet is not always worry-free for the blind. Crista
Earl, the head of Web operations for the American Foundation for the Blind
in New York, said graphics that don't contain textual labels - which can be
read by screen-reading software - are a common obstacle for blind Internet
users, as are "forms" that are unlabeled. Forms are the little boxes where
you insert data, such as a book title you wanted to search for.
The decision to hold Target's Web site to the same standards of
accessibility as its physical store under the Americans with Disabilities
Act was considered a victory by many advocates for the blind, but at the
same time others worry that the ruling could be read too narrowly.
Not every business or Web site is subject to the Americans with Disabilities
Act, said John D. Kemp., a lawyer with the Washington law firm Powers,
Pyles, Sutter & Verville P.C. The ADA applies mainly to public places such
as restaurants, retailers, movie theaters and health care institutions,
explained Kemp, who has long worked on compliance issues related to
disabilities, employment and technology.
For an electronic retailer such as Amazon.com, which has no physical store,
the law is unclear, Kemp said. "There is no well defined policy in this area
at all."
However, Kemp noted that many businesses, such as banks, see a strong
business rationale for making their sites accessible, and have moved
aggressively to do so.
Meanwhile, other retailers are also moving to adapt their Web sites to
screen-reading software. Kelly Groehler, a spokeswoman for Best Buy Co.,
says the company has made a number of changes to its site since late last
year, including incorporating "alt tags", or text that labels items like
graphics, into its site.
Best Buy also moved code for drop-down menus to the bottom of the page,
where it's less likely to duplicate other elements on the page. "We're
trying to be proactive here," Groehler said. Walmart.com spokeswoman Amy
Colella says the site has made sure it is "reasonably accessible" to the
Other retailers are making similar efforts, but it remains a challenge due
to the continuing evolution in the technologies used by blind people to surf
the Internet, says Scott Silverman, executive director of Shop.org, a
division of the National Retail Federation for online retailers. 
"As the retailers' Web sites continue to evolve to stay competitive in the
marketplace, sometimes the technologies necessary to do that are a little
bit ahead of where the screen-readers are," Silverman said. "It's a very
fast-moving environment. Retailers want to serve all their customers,
including blind people." 
Internet search giant Google Inc. is getting into the act as well. In July
it launched a project to identify and rank Web sites that offer significant
accessibility to the blind. 
As more information and services migrate online, keeping access open to it
is of paramount importance to advocates for the blind. 
"The blind have more access to information than they ever had in history,
but that's only true to the extent that Web accessibility is maintained,"
Danielsen said. "The technology is out there, and we don't need barriers to
be put in our way. Give us a way in." 
On the Net: 
National Federation of the Blind: http://www.nfb.org
Google Accessible Search: 
American Foundation for the Blind: http://afb.org/

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