Blind Group Seeks Chage at

Blind Group Seeks Chage at

By John Reinan, Star Tribune

(Editor’s Note: This article was published in the Star Tribune on September 18, 2006.  Steve Jacobson is a member of the NFB of Minnesota board of directors as well as an active member of the NFB of Minnesota Metro Chapter.)

Steve Jacobson whips through, fingers flying on his computer keyboard. "This is all super good," the Edina resident says, jumping from gift cards to baby gear on his way to furniture.

Then Jacobson hits a bad link and his computer starts sputtering incomprehensibly. In a mechanical voice, the machine rapidly spews out a list of numbers and letters that add up to gibberish.

Jacobson, along with other blind people, wants the retail giant to fix the glitches in its website. The National Federation of the Blind filed a lawsuit earlier this year in federal court in California, alleging that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Jacobson, 55, has been blind since birth. With special software that reads Web pages and his keystrokes aloud to him, Jacobson is able to shop on the Internet with Best Buy, Wal-Mart and many other retailers. But not with Target.

Disability advocates say the Target case could set a precedent requiring all U.S. retailers to make their websites accessible to the blind and others with disabilities.

"This is the first case in the country where a court ruled that the ADA applied to a website," said Mazen Mohammed Basrawi, a Berkeley, Calif., lawyer who's handling the case for the National Federation of the Blind. "We think thousands of businesses will take note of accessibility issues."

'Public accommodation'

One piece of the ADA forbids discrimination against the disabled in places of "public accommodation," which many courts have construed to mean brick-and-mortar locations. Minneapolis-based Target asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that its website didn't qualify as a place of public accommodation.

This month, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel refused Target's request, opening the way to a possible jury trial. In her order denying dismissal, the judge said that Target appears to treat its website as an extension of its stores and a piece of an integrated marketing effort.

"The website is a means to gain access to the store and it is ironic that Target, through its merchandising efforts on the one hand, seeks to reach greater numbers of customers and enlarge its consumer-base, while on the other hand it seeks to escape the requirements of the ADA," the judge wrote.

The federation complains that doesn't include features that make web sites fully usable for the blind, such as an invisible code that allows a blind customer's software to interpret and vocalize graphic images. also requires the use of a mouse to complete a transaction, the lawsuit complains, making blind customers unable to make purchases independently.

Vigorous defense

Target says it will defend itself vigorously.

"We believe our Web site complies with all applicable laws," the company said in a statement. "We will continue to implement technology that increases the usability of our Web site for all our guests, including those with disabilities."

The time is ripe for the Internet to include all Americans, regardless of disability, said Cynthia Waddell, a California lawyer and professor who wrote the federal government's web-accessibility standards.

"Technology changes, but civil rights do not," she said. Waddell added that there are sound business reasons for making websites widely accessible. Some disability features, for example, are used to translate graphics and photos into text; the same features are useful in adapting content from large computer screens to handheld devices for non-disabled customers.

Jacobson, a 3M computer analyst and a board member of the Minnesota Federation of the Blind, said he doesn't understand why Target is fighting the accessibility lawsuit.

"The issue isn't that my life is gonna stop if they don't fix it," he said. "The issue is that corporations using the Internet -- which has had and continues to have some government subsidies -- shouldn't lock us out.

"I can't imagine it would cost anywhere near as much to fix it as they're paying their lawyers."

(Copyright 2006 Star Tribune. Republished with permission of Star Tribune, Minneapolis-St. Paul. No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the written consent of Star Tribune.)