Accessibility vs the Free Market: Attitudes to Target

This is going to be somewhat of a long post about accessibility, about a lawsuit that relates to accessibility, and to the attitudes of people towards disability. It’s therefore going to touch on legal matters and technical matters, but mainly it’s going to be around the arguments around different attitudes towards accessibility/disability issues and the politics behind them.

If that’s not your thang, then you’ll probably want to stop reading here. I appreciate that for the people reading this, I’m probably preaching to the converted already, but what the heck, I just wanted to get it off my chest.


Okay, I’ll run through this briefly just to make sure you’ve all got the context.

Bruce Sexton, president of the California Association of Blind Students, found that he was finding it difficult to shop at’s website because alt text was missing (meaning that even with a screen reader, he had no way of understanding what product images were supposed to represent), because headings that could be used for easier navigation were missing, and because it is was not possible to complete purchases without using the mouse (obviously difficult for someone who is blind and can’t see where the pointer is, who would be able to use the keyboard instead).

For example, when a blind user visiting this website selected an image of a Dyson vacuum cleaner using his or her tab key, the voice synthesizer on the computer would say “Link GP browse dot html reference zero six zero six one eight nine six three eight one eight zero seven two nine seven three five 12 million 957 thousand 121″ instead of a useful description of the image.Wikipedia

He raised the issue with the American group the NFB, who wrote to Target explaining the problems in May 2005.

In January 2006, talks between the NFB and Target broke down, leading to the NFB filing the lawsuit in February 2006, claiming that the Target site is in violation of the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, the California Disabled Persons Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It’s unfortunate that Target was unwilling to commit to equal access for all its online customers. That gave us no choice but to seek the protection of the court. The website is no more accessible today than it was in May of last year, when we first complained to Target.NFB President Dr Marc Maurer, quoted on Out-Law

In September 2006, a US District Court judge rejected Target’s attempt to have the case dismissed (although they did dismiss the part of the claim that was unconnected to the physical stores).

In October 2007, the US District Court granted the lawsuit class action status, allowing other blind individuals to collectively join in the lawsuit.

It is important to note that no final decision has been reached; also that the law regarding accessibility in the US is somewhat different to that in the UK/EU. Also, so far as I am aware, prior to the Target lawsuit, there was only one other lawsuit relating to web inaccessibility — that of Maguire vs. SOCOG, excellently summarised by Joe Clark.

As such, the Target case should not be taken as a definitive guide to the Americal legal position: but what it has done has been to highlight distinctly different attitudes towards the importance of web accessibility.

Bad Attitude: Attack the Complainant

Unfortunately, there seemed to be a number of people who seemed to ignore that the lawsuit was only raised after the NFB had been in contact with Target for a period of months during which they had (according to the NFB) done nothing to remedy matters, with comments like:

This is yet another example of a student sueing a company for “What-ever” reason in order to make some extra money.

The college student just wants money. End of story.

[The plaintiff] chose to try to blackmail Target for money and when that didn’t work he sued them.

I sum these sorts of attitudes up with the idea of “I don’t like this part of the law, therefore anyone using it is bad”. It’s fine to dislike the law (and let’s remember, there has been no full ruling yet), but surely if you object to the law, you should seek to have the law changed, rather than assume that anyone trying to exercise a legitimate right is somehow bad?

It’s also an ad hominem attack: attempting to discredit the argument by attacking the person putting forward the argument, rather than the argument itself. So while it saddens me that seemingly a significant minority of people have this sort of attitude, I can generally tune these ones out.

Education, Education, Education

Then of course we had the section of the population who seemed to think that people with disabilities should presumably just sit in a box and not contribute to life, because they simply aren’t capable of doing anything by themselves. That’s a gross oversimplification of course, and it probably reflects the lack of knowledge around assistive technology rather than the fact that the people in question

If they where blind then why would they be on the computer?

Um… for the same reasons other people go on the computer. To socialise, to buy things, to send emails and the like. With the right assistive technology, blind and deafblind people can use a computer and communicate with others who may never even become aware of the other person’s disability.

I highly doubt that a blind person would ever try to purchase something from the internet WITHOUT the help of another human being. What if he purchases something different than intended?

Well, if he doesn’t buy what he wanted to buy, he’s an idiot. Much the same as anyone who walks into a shop and buys something they don’t want. The point is that with a properly constructed website, he would know what he was buying because the technology being used (a screenreader that reads pages out to him, or a refreshable braille display that demonstrates the content of the pages that way) would tell him.

I still dont get it. How is an ATL-text going to be usfull so someone that cant see it?

See the bit about screen readers and braille displays above. Screen readers and braille displays are not clever enough to analyse images and understand the meaning behind them, but if you associate some text with the image to say what the image represents, then the screen reader or refreshable braille display can output this information to the user.

Bad Attitude: Whatever Next?

Hold onto your hats, ladies and gentlemen. Next we come to the section of comments which seem to think that asking people to produce sites a blind person can use is like asking for the moon on a stick (it’s easy, really, but I’ll get to that later), and equate it with things like:

What about glasses for people who have lost their ears?

Well, given the fact that what disabled people are after is an equivalent experience, not the same experience, I’d suggest that there are in fact glasses available for people who don’t have ears. They are normally called contact lenses.

Can I sue because child sized clothes don’t fit me?

Erm… no. You could sue if a shop refused to sell you clothes because you were black however. That’s the difference you see: in one case, you’re given access to buy whatever you like, but you choose to buy something entirely inappropriate. In the second instance, you’ve been prevented from having the option to buy anything. Now do you understand why the first one isn’t discriminatory and the second one is?

Bad Attitude: It’s the equivalent of…

Hold onto your hats, guys and girls, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. What exactly is a blind person wanting to use a website the equivalent of?

im going to go into the movie theater and watch a movie, then im going to tell them im deaf and Im going to sue them for one million dollars because they do not supply deaf word at the bottom of the screen so i can read whats going on in the movie…

Hmm, being blind and wanting to use a website is a bit like lying about being deaf and then without having any evidence to support you lie, attempting to use that to win a court case. Besides which, many cinemas do make some adjustments in this area and have subtitled showings anyway, but don’t let that stop you, eh?

Deaf people shouldn’t be record producers. And fat guys shouldn’t coach sports.

Hmm. Well, maybe it’s in the time before record producers, but there are a few people out there who would possibly suggest that deafness didn’t prevent Ludvig van Beethoven from being relatively successful as a composer…

Now lets see, if I am color blind (prove i aint) and some websites are using colors that I can not see, does that mean I can sue for ‘undesignated damages’?

Sigh. Colour blindness isn’t actually the inability to see a particular colour; it’s the inability to differentiate that colour from a different colour. I would rather suggest your ignorance of this does by itself go some way towards “proving you ain’t”. So no you can’t.

sue the roads cos your blind; sue iPod cos your deaf

No, no, no. Remember, it’s not the disability that is the problem. It is the fact that people aren’t prepared (even when asked nicely) to take reasonable steps to make sites accessible. Apple don’t prevent you from buying an iPod if you’re deaf any more than Ford prevent you from buying a car if you don’t have a licence to drive it yourself. If you choose to buy something that is inappropriate, that’s your own fault. If you’re prevented from having that choice, you’re being discriminated against. Got it?

Whats ignorant is thinking disabled people are normal. They are not normal. Stop drinking the PC happy juice.

Gee. I don’t really know where to start with that one. People are different. I can’t speak German. I can’t play squash, or golf. I can drive. I can see. Other people can do some of those things I can’t, and can’t do some of the things I can. Neither one of us is particularly more “normal” than the other.

Of course, technically, there are more non-disabled people than disabled people. But that doesn’t make me normal. How many left-handed agnostic web developers do you know who are white, in their thirties and married — out of the total proportion of everyone you know? Normal is only by whichever criterion you’re using at the time.

And frankly, if normal is having that attitude, then I’m happier not to be.

Contrasting Attitudes: Free Market vs. Accessibility

Where it actually becomes interesting is where you have a number of people starting from the same point “people should make their sites accessible” — and then deviating from it.

One group (the one I’m in) believe that companies should be mandated to take steps to make their sites accessible. What steps they should have to take depends on the individual’s viewpoint — mine is that the steps necessary should depend on the resources of the company in question. I’d expect Tesco or the UK Government to be able to go to the far end of a fart in order to ensure that their websites were accessible: I’d expect a trading-from home business such as the currently-fictional “Grandma Jenny’s Home Made Cakes” not to be expected to have the resources to hire a professional web developer, and therefore I’d either not expect any changes to be mandated to that site, or I’d expect the business owner to be given help in making them.

The other group believes that while sites should be accessible, it shouldn’t be mandated (although some believe it should be mandated in the public sector). This argument seems to be on the lines of “well, it’s Target who are losing the business, it should be up to them to decide whether or not they want to lose the business” with maybe a soupçon of “no government intervention” thrown in.

Interestingly, the two camps appear (on the whole, and there are exceptions) to fit with the UK correspondents mostly falling into the legislative camp and the US correspondents falling into the non-interventionist camp.

I’ll ignore the idea of the US “not intervening” being rather bizarre in itself — Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan, anyone? — other than to say that this ties in with the other way the camps tend to split.

Free market capitalists (which tends to include UK conservatives), not surprisingly tend to prefer the free market option. Those who don’t believe in just the free market seem to prefer the other one.

Which raises the rather interesting question that maybe everyones individual viewpoint on this issue is more determined by their socio-political and cultural background than any conclusions they’ve genuinely reached on merit. Or is that just the people who disagree with me?

Moving Forward

Well, accessibility isn’t difficult, not when it’s included at the outset.

It’s simple stuff, it’s not like you have to burn your website onto a CD, walk a thousand miles and have it blessed by the Dali Lama.Rich from NotOrange

Making your site accessible to someone with disabilities isn’t the same as “complying with the WCAG guidelines” however. Mostly because the WCAG guidelines are so out of date. They are still a good starting point, but some failures of WCAG wouldn’t actually cause much in the way of problems for disabled users, and some problems would still occur for some disabled users even if every WCAG guideline was achieved. But that’s a different story.

What I’d like to see is for Target, and for all the other big retailers to make their sites accessible. But as to whether or not that will be mandated or not in the US, we’ll have to wait and see how the lawsuit pans out…

9 Responses to “Accessibility vs the Free Market: Attitudes to Target”

  1. Joe Dolson responds:

    You mean that my trip to see the Dali Lama was wasted? Damn.

    Great article, Jack — you really tracked down some of the anti-gems of the comment world on this issue.

  2. Mike Cherim responds:


    I’ll ignore the idea of the US “not intervening” being rather bizarre in itself — Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan, anyone?

    Hehe, that’s funny. Just watch the changes that occur once it’s discovered that blind people are a rich source of fossil fuels.

    Excellent article. Reading the lead-in I thought it was going to be preachy and it wasn’t. It’s a well-reasoned, well-written article.

    Question: Are the quotes of the ignorant real or are they paraphrasing of random bits of real remarks? I know the ignorance is very real, but I don’t know if the quotes are real quotes.


    You mean that my trip to see the Dali Lama was wasted? Damn.

    Nah, I’m there this week (I’m using his Wi-Fi connection right now). He says hello and has added that he rather enjoyed your visit. Next time he wants you to bring your violin, though. Or more beer.

  3. The Goldfish responds:

    The thing that strikes me as someone who knows very little about such things is that ALT text, page headings and so on are all aids to the Search Engines. Everything that I can think of which makes a page more accessible to people with visual impairments simultaneously helps raise those all important Google rankings, as well as generally contributing to navigability for everyone. It’s really difficult to see this as a costly accommodation.

    At least none of the comments included, “But don’t they have Guide Dogs for that kind of thing?”

    Great post. :-)

  4. JackP responds:

    @Mike - they’re all genuine quotes (from sitepoint). I didn’t give the person or the references as I wasn’t really giving a right-of-reply in the same way that the forum posts did so I thought it would be unfair to name people.

  5. Mike Cherim responds:

    Thanks Jack. Good call, I wouldn’t name names either — not unless they said some intelligent ;)

  6. Andy Mabbett responds:

    Not quite a record-producer, but Evelyn Glennie is a deaf composer and musician of some renown. Oddly, her website: has appalling accessibility.

  7. Matt Machell responds:

    Great article, Jack!

  8. Chris S. responds:

    I’m a few months late reading this, as I found it in a Google search. This article is spot-on, including the examples of typical comments to articles that usually seem to be about lawsuits concerning accessibility. I’ve also just linked to this article in my Livejournal. I’m especially amused by the hideous spelling and grammar of some of the commenters, even if it’s not appropriate for me to be amused. Hahahaha!

  9. hyper-textual ontology » Old but amazing blog post on web accessibility for the blind responds:

    [...] “Bruce Sexton, president of the California Association of Blind Students, found that he was finding it difficult to shop at’s website because alt text was missing (meaning that even with a screen reader, he had no way of understanding what product images were supposed to represent), because headings that could be used for easier navigation were missing, and because it is was not possible to complete purchases without using the mouse (obviously difficult for someone who is blind and can’t see where the pointer is, who would be able to use the keyboard instead).” Fantastic blog post on accessibility issues. [...]

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