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Accessibility Issue Comes to a Head

Target lawsuit could be a test case; new wave of apps concerns blind users

By Carol Sliwa
May 8, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Bruce Sexton Jr. wants to be able to access the same Web content that anyone else can. Because he can't, he now finds himself at the center of a potentially precedent-setting legal fight over Web site accessibility.

Bruce Sexton Jr.
Bruce Sexton Jr.

Sexton, who is legally blind, relies on software that reads his PC's screen from left to right and top to bottom, skipping ahead when he uses keyboard-based shortcuts. When he visits Target Corp.'s Web site, a robotic voice announces staccato-style the presence of alternative text to describe images of the retailer's logo and its "Target dog" mascot.

But the screen-reader software doesn't read the weekly list of special offers on Target's Web site, Sexton said. He can't tell whether the numbers he hears on other parts of the home page correspond to products, files or something else. Deeper into the site, he doesn't know which item goes with which price. "It's difficult to find anything," Sexton said. As a result, he no longer tries to buy goods from the Target site, which for a long time he couldn't do anyway because, he said, it required the use of a mouse.

Sexton has joined the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) as a plaintiff in a lawsuit that charges Target with violating the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and California's Unruh Civil Rights Act and Disabled Persons Act.

The lawsuit, scheduled for a hearing next month at U.S. District Court in San Francisco, could have a broad impact because Target's site is hardly the only one that could be accused of having access barriers, according to attorneys for the plaintiffs.

Web 2.0 Challenge

The move from text-based to visually oriented Web content has been tough on the blind, and now there's a new threat on the horizon. The shift to dynamic "Web 2.0" technology, which Gartner Inc. predicts will be pervasive by the end of next year, could exacerbate the problem of inaccessible sites.

A Web 2.0 application might make use of Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) and Dynamic HTML to update information in a table without having to refresh an entire Web page. But screen readers, magnifiers and other assistive technology may not know which parts of the page have changed unless developers take steps to make sure the tools can glean that information.

Jeff Bishop, an application systems analyst at the University of Arizona in Tucson
Jeff Bishop, an application systems analyst at the University of Arizona in Tucson

"It's very, very, very scary," said Jeff Bishop, an application systems analyst at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "Before, so what? You had a missing [alternative-text] tag, but at least you knew there was an image. You could click on it, and maybe you could figure out what it was. Now, you don't even know where to click. You don't know how to interact."

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