Targeting Websites: How A Retail Chain Changed the Future of Online Compliance

A number of web accessibility cases have gone to court to date—the precedent has been set. Companies and organizations can be penalized if their online content cannot be accessed by individuals with disabilities. We’ll focus here on the case of National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corporation, which serves as a cautionary tale to industries that do not meet the “Accessibility Guidelines” set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Claim: National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corporation

In May 2005, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), a non-profit organization representing blind individuals in the US, notified Target Corporation that their online website was not accessible to individuals with disabilities. NFB argued that Target’s website lacked alternative text coding, which permits screen readers to read the contents of the site, It also could not complete a purchase without the use of a mouse, among other serious lapses. Target did not offer any solutions to the claims, and made no plans to revise their site to make it accessible.

In January of 2006, the NFB brought a lawsuit together with the National Federation of the Blind of California (NFB-CA) and Bruce Sexton, the NFB member who lodged the original complaint. The lawsuit alleged Target had violated 3 particular laws:

● The California Unruh Civil Rights Act (California Civil Code Section 51 et. seq.): requires any business establishment of any kind to be accessible if doing business in California

● The California Disabled Persons Act (California Civil Code Section 54 et. seq.): requires any public space ‘and other places to which the public are invited’ to be accessible

● The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in ‘places of public accommodation’

Target responded by arguing that the NFB and NFB-CA are not “individuals” who are blind, and so hadn’t suffered any injury, attempting to dismiss the case outright. Target also argued that Sexton had not suffered any injury, and that if the ADA ruling did not hold, then the California laws would not apply because they themselves were based off of the ADA.

A Federal judge rejected Target’s motion to dismiss the charges, stating that Target qualifies as a business establishment and place of accommodation, thus the claims fall under California’s anti-discrimination laws. This includes websites—regardless of whether they are tied to a physical establishment. The judge also allowed the ADA to stand, arguing that Target’s website services were covered by the ADA’s non-discrimination statutes.

In August 2008, Target settled its class action lawsuit with plaintiffs and was required to pay damages of $6 million. Target was also forced to ensure its sites met accessibility requirements, agreeing to accessibility monitoring by the NFB for three years. It also agreed to send its web developers to accessibility training sessions.

Why is this Significant?

National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corporation was groundbreaking because it was the first time accessibility was the main focus in a lawsuit against commercial websites. As the Internet becomes more prominent in everyday life, commercial websites are being considered “public spaces” much more frequently. As a result, they fall under the requirements of Title III of the ADA, which specifies that all public accommodations (meaning private entities that own, operate, or lease to places that are meant for the public) “make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, and procedures that deny equal access to individuals with disabilities unless a fundamental alteration would result in the nature of the goods and services provided.”

More importantly, this case is considered a precedent setting in common law. In legal terms, precedent is viewed as a rule established in a previous case that is used to base future judgments with similar issues or facts. Precedents record why prior cases were decided, explaining in detail the legal rationale behind their decision. The fact that Target, one of the largest and most visible retail chains in the US, was found in violation of ADA accessibility compliance leads experts to believe many more similar cases are on the horizon. Their verdicts will be influenced by the ruling against Target.

Since the verdict and revamp, the NFB has awarded their Non-Visual Accessibility award in 2010 and has maintained a partnership to ensure web accessibility for all persons with disabilities, not just the blind.