Federal court ruling applies ADA to retailer’s Web site

Surfing the Web is something most of us take for granted. We use the Web to perform many daily, routine tasks, such as reading the newspaper, checking stock prices, even shopping. It’s convenient. We don’t have to go out in the rain or cold, we avoid those lines at the mall, and we save money on gas.

For one group of disabled persons, however, surfing the Web is not something that can be taken for granted. For the blind and visually impaired, many Web sites are inaccessible. A federal court ruling may soon change that, along with requirements that many business Web sites have to meet. In order to access Web sites, the blind rely on computerized screen readers to read aloud the contents of the Web site. The computerized readers require “alternative text” (“alt tags”) to be embedded in the Web site in order to work properly. Alt tags provide brief text descriptions of the components of a web page. On many Web sites, these tags either improperly describe the contents of the site, or they do not exist at all, making it impossible for the screen readers to translate the site into words and, therefore, impossible for the blind and visually impaired to access it.

In February, a blind student and the National Federation for the Blind, filed a suit against one of those Web sites, alleging the site violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because it was not fully navigable by the blind and visually impaired.

The ADA is applicable to places of public accommodation, and it prohibits discrimination in the full and equal enjoyment of goods, services, facilities and privileges offered by places of public accommodation. The ADA lists 12 specific places of public accommodation, including retail stores, restaurants and theaters — all physical places.

Web sites are not specifically mentioned in the statute.

Target.com was the target of the suit filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California.

Target claimed that its site did not have to comply with the ADA because it was not a place of public accommodation. The court ruled that the ADA did apply to the Target site but did not say that the Web site was a place of public accommodation. Rather, the court said that the site was a service of the Target stores. As places of public accommodation, the stores are subject to the ADA. Since the stores are covered by the ADA, any goods or services offered by the stores also are covered by the ADA.

The court said the Web site is heavily integrated with the brick-and-mortar stores, acting as a gateway to the stores because it allows customers to perform functions related to the stores. The court noted that, on the Web site, customers can purchase items available at the stores, access information on store locations and hours, refill prescriptions and order photo prints for pick-up at a store and print coupons to redeem at a store. This was key to the court’s ruling that the Website was a service of the store, thus subjecting it to the ADA.

However, the entire Web site is not subject to the ADA, only its parts that offer goods and services connected to the store. The case is continuing to determine exactly which parts of the site are affected by this ruling.

A wider net

This ruling is the first of its kind. Although other Web sites have had similar actions brought against them, those sites, including Ramada Hotels, AOL and Priceline.com, agreed to make their sites accessible rather than fighting the suits in court.

If the Target ruling is upheld, it will require many, but not all, retail Web sites to comply with the ADA. Whether the ADA is applicable to a Web site will depend on whether the business offering the site has brick-and-mortar locations and whether the site is integrated with those locations.

If the Web sites offer goods and services connected to the stores, such as those offered by Target, they are likely to be subject to the ADA.

Even though this ruling does not apply to all businesses that offer Web site services to customers, the trend of making the Internet more accessible to the disabled is not likely to end here. There are groups that feel that Congress should change the ADA so that it is applicable to the Internet. These groups note that the Internet was not a large marketplace for goods and services when the ADA was enacted. Now that it is, there is more opportunity for the disabled to be discriminated against because there are some discounts and other services that are only offered on the Web. Such a change could greatly increase the number of business Web sites subject to the ADA.

The Target ruling is not final. The case will enter the discovery phase to determine if the average blind person is able to access Target’s Web site, and to determine which parts of the site are integrated with the store. Once these issues are decided, the ruling that Target’s Web site is subject to the ADA can be appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court.

However, the push to make the Internet more accessible to the disabled will continue. So, if you are planning to build or update a business Website, you might want to include alt tags in your plan. nhbr

Coleen Penacho is an associate in the Employment Litigation Practice Group at the law firm of McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton P.A. She can be reached at 628-1246 or coleen.penacho@mclane.com.

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